Pondering a Congress without Kennedys

Some see turn against an activist government

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / February 13, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

So, has the dream died?

Patrick Kennedy’s unexpected decision not to seek reelection to the US House prompted widespread reflection yesterday on how swiftly the political climate had changed, from the adulation for Edward M. Kennedy after his death to the voter fatigue that has helped end the family’s decades in power.

With Patrick Kennedy bowing out amid dismal poll numbers, some read the shift as a measure of the declining political cachet of the family name. Others say it goes deeper, reflecting the fading popularity of the activist federal government the Kennedy family has long championed.

“It is quite a landmark moment,’’ said Robert Dallek, a historian and biographer of John F. Kennedy. “It may be an indication that the Kennedy mystique and influence has run its course.’’

For some in Massachusetts, where the Kennedy family dominated public life for nearly seven decades, that was a shock.

“I think people felt there would always be a Kennedy in Congress someplace,’’ said Peter Meade, president and chief executive of the newly created Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Dorchester.

“I think it’s a bit of a start for people to say, ’My gosh, there’s not one member of the Kennedy family in the federal government,’ ’’ Meade said. “It gives people pause.’’

It was just over five months ago that the death of Patrick Kennedy’s father prompted an extraordinary outpouring of affection for his life and legacy, as tens of thousands of mourners lined roads from Hyannis Port to Boston to salute his passing hearse and world leaders filled a church in Mission Hill for his funeral Mass.

Then his nephew Joseph P. Kennedy II decided not to run for his seat, paving the way for an obscure Republican state senator named Scott Brown to ride his pickup truck to victory over the candidate the Kennedys ultimately backed, Democrat Martha Coakley. Brown even campaigned on a pledge to stop a Democratic plan to overhaul health care, which Edward Kennedy had called “the cause of my life.’’

The fading fortunes of the Kennedy family seemed to reflect the changing political landscape that has imperiled President Obama’s agenda in Washington, Dallek said.

“Symbolically,’’ he said, “it may speak to this shift away from an interest in federal activism in pursuit of social reforms.’’

When Patrick Kennedy clears out his Capitol Hill office after eight terms, it will draw the curtain on a 64-year period during which at least one Kennedy was either in the White House, the US House, or the US Senate.

That period represents a quarter of the nation’s existence, during which the country experienced a series of profound changes, said the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

’’How extraordinary it is to realize what we have witnessed during the six decades the Kennedys have been in Congress,’’ Goodwin said, pointing out that Kennedys have served from the Cold War through the Reagan Revolution and the election of the first African-American president.

Political observers say that younger members of the family may pick up the mantle and run for office and that others carry on the tradition of public service through other avenues.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for example, is a prominent environmentalist, and Timothy Shriver, a son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, is chairman of the Special Olympics.

“This is not the end of the story,’’ said US Representative Edward J. Markey. “There will be other Kennedys who will run and others who will continue to fight for the causes the family stands for.’’

Even if they do not, the family’s legacy endures in a generation of politicians who were inspired by John F. Kennedy, he said.

“Every Democratic member of the Massachusetts delegation serves largely because of the inspiration of the Kennedy family, and the same could be said of many other Democrats and even Republicans across the nation,’’ Markey said.

“Senator Kennedy said, ‘The cause endures; the dream will never die,’ and the Kennedy family has ensured that will be the case, because so many people serve in government to continue the fights that they inspired us to take up.’’

But Laurence Leamer - author of “The Kennedy Men,’’ a book about the family - said Patrick Kennedy’s exit “could be the end of it’’ for the storied clan.

“The magic is not there in the same way, and I think it’s a question of generations,’’ Leamer said. “If you’re under 40, you’re probably not excited by them. If you’re older.. . . at least you have some strong feelings about them. But for the under-30s, it’s, ‘So what?’ ’’

Patrick Kennedy’s exit also highlighted how the Kennedy family’s guiding belief in using government to make transformative changes in people’s lives has fallen somewhat out of fashion in an era of sharp partisanship, gridlock in Congress, and incessant media scrutiny, historians said.

“You have the tremendous frustration that exists now: What’s the use?’’ said James N. Giglio, a historian and biographer of John F. Kennedy. “Our system is broken, and you wonder what can be derived from public service.’’

Giglio called the departure of Patrick Kennedy “a break in a long legacy’’ and attributed it to the passing of the family’s patriarchal figures, Joseph P. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, who pushed two generations of Kennedys into public life.

“You don’t have that driving force anymore,’’ he said.

Indeed, Patrick Kennedy’s abrupt decision to quit politics at age 42, after a rocky career, stood in sharp contrast to his father, who, despite his own struggles in his private life, continued to serve until he was 77 and battling brain cancer, and of President Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, who were assassinated as their political careers were in ascent.

“T.S. Eliot said, ‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper,’ ’’ Dallek said. “It is that kind of punctuation mark, rather than a dramatic end.’’