A Dynasty In Decline

JOE KENNEDY WAS IN A BIND. FOR weeks, the 44-year-old congressman and eldest son of Robert E Kennedy had been dodging allegations that he had long known about his brother Michael's affair with a family baby sitter. With Joe's polls sinking, NEWSWEEK has learned that some of his aides were urging him to speak out, "Oprah" style--to tell how he had tried to save Michael, how he had advised his brother to seek counseling. But Joe resisted. He didn't want anything he said to be used by prosecutors before a grand jury. Most of all, he did not want to betray the old Kennedy code of loyalty and sell out his own brother in any way. Back when Joe's namesake grandfather ruled the clan, problems like these were taken care of before they ever reached the papers. As Kennedy mythology has it, old Joe would simply write a few checks, make a few threats, and suddenly no one could remember a thing. There was never a question of pitting one brother against another.

As he pondered what to do or say about Michael, young Joe was burdened by problems of his own. His ex-wife, Sheila, had just published a book that described Joe as a bully who had pressured her for an annulment so he could marry his office scheduler. In the end, Joe chose to muddle through. At a Democratic state convention earlier this month, he stammered that he was sorry. He had rejected remarks prepared by his advisers and seemed to draw little inspiration from the rhetorical flourishes of his forebears. The scion of the most powerful dynasty in American politics was utterly on his own.

This is what it means to be a Kennedy in the '90s: the protective aura and the quiet payoffs-are long gone. So, too, is the concentrated wealth. Most of the 28 Kennedy cousins of the third generation are not rich. Yet they live with great expectations and Under great scrutiny. Some trade on the famous name; many others say they would prefer anonymity. Several members of the third generation appear to have inherited their grandfather's bad seed-but not his golden touch. "The old emotional link to the Kennedy name used to be tragedy," says one family friend. "Now it has become women and sex."

After so much--the horror of assassination, the cover-ups and car wrecks, the overdoses and the infidelities the Kennedys who really wish to be left alone probably deserve to be. Yet we cannot turn away. No single family has loomed as large in the course of this century, both mirroring and making the nation's manners and morals. Their story has a timeless quality, yet it is grounded in common American experiences. Early in the century, they were Irish Catholic outsiders, striving to make it. Until Pearl Harbor, they were wary of plunging into a foreign war; later they lost a son to Hitler. Then, like the rest of us, they embarked on the cold war. In the '60s, John Kennedy's elan and taste set the tone for a prosperous country, while RFK fought poverty, Jim Crow and, eventually, Vietnam. Now this generation is at the heart of the culture once again, only the drama is not so grand as Joe Jr.'s dying over the Channel or JFK's staring down Khrushchev. Without the great stakes that Jack or Bobby was fighting for, the country, and the younger Kennedys, are somewhat diminished, too. They are emblems of a tabloid time, a fin-de-siecle moment when public life seems less important and stories about sex more titillating.

For the third generation, nine of whom granted NEWSWEEK rare interviews for this article, the headlines about scandals, both old and new, are wounding. "I would pretend not to take them personally," says Ted Kennedy Jr., 85. "But quite trutfully, I did. And I still do." For the younger Kennedys, there is no escape--even the obscure ones are hounded by paparazzi, and they all must live with the unstated assumptions of strangers (and friends) that they are spoiled and somehow flawed. The natural instinct is to draw inward. When Christopher Kennedy, 88, first heard the news about his brother Michael, "I wanted to kick his a--," he admitted. But his next instinet was to get on the phone to his siblings and cousins to find a way to protect the family. "We talk to each other a lot, partially because we don't really know who we can trust," says Ted Jr. Christopher, the eighth child of Robert and Ethel (he still speaks to his mother every day), is understandably defensive. "We're just like every other big family in America," he says, without irony. The incidence of substance abuse and sexual misconduct, he says, is explained by the law of averages. What is really different and unique, the family believes, is the Kennedys' continued commitment to helping others. Indeed, a partial listing of the do-good organizations for the poor and disabled founded or run by Kennedys is impressive, a kind of family-owned United Way: Facing the Challenge, Best Buddies International, Citizens Energy, the Special Olympics, Lead Safe Home Project, Physicians Against Land Mines.

The younger generation shows, sometimes without meaning to, a deep ambivalence about its legacy. Some embrace the old myths. "There are phone calls I've made in my career that wouldn't have been answered except for my name," says Bobby Kennedy Jr., an environmentalist who may be considering a run for the U.S. Senate from New York. Bobby is the purest avatar of the clan, the most messianic in his zeal to follow his father's example. Rarely smiling in the presence of strangers, he is obsessive about trying to make the world better. Kathleen, RFK's oldest daughter, ran for Congress in 1986 under her married name, Townsend, and even after inserting "Kennedy" as her middle name failed to win. When she campaigned for lieutenant governor of Maryland eight years later, it was Kathleen Kennedy Townsend all the way. She won. A more serious, studious presence than most Kennedys, she was nicknamed "The Nun" by her brothers. She has her grandmother's and mother's religiosity, and none of the rakehell appetites of the Kennedy men. Anthony Kennedy Shriver's middle name might help him get elected if he decides to run for mayor of Miami Beach this year. So far, much of his energy has been focused on Best Buddies International, a group that finds helpmates for the mentally retarded-his mother Eunice's great cause. Shriver, 31, conveys that family feeling that there is a whole world to save but barely enough time to save it. Unlike some other famous clans, there is little sign of the Kennedys' trying to cash in on their name. An exception is a very distant cousin named Kerry McCarthy, who is trying to do just that with a line of sports clothes called JFK PT WEAR.

But others want to be left alone. "If I never got my name in the paper, that would be fine with me," says Christopher Kennedy, who is running the family-owned Chicago Merchandise Mart, a vast complex of wholesale showrooms. Christopher is the Kennedys' man in Chicago, and he plays the dutiful ambassador with the local pols. But his main goal in life right now is to leave work by 6 p.m. to see his young children, ages 6, 4 and 2--something that was not the first priority for his father. "No one here knows I'm a Kennedy," says his brother Max, as he sits happily-and anony-mously-in a Santa Monica, Calif., restaurant. Max--named after Gen. Maxwell Taylor, a famed airborne warrior and chairman of the Joint Chiefs under JFK-- hates publicity and wants to be left alone to go to business school in L.A. Like most Kennedys, he feels the weight of his legacy, but he can also joke about it. When his wife, Victoria, protested that she did not think of her husband as a public figure, Max playfully interjected, "But honey, what about all the glamour?"

William Kennedy Smith prefers to be Will Smith, M.D., not the tabloid Kennedy who took a walk with a girl on the beach and was tried and acquitted for rape. ("I was innocent," he says. "It's important for people to hear that. It needs to be repeated.") Now a physician specializing in rehabilitative medicine at a Chicago veterans hospital, Smith was at once gracious and ill at ease with NEWSWEEK, tossing out quotes from Shakespeare and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and avoiding real reflection, deflecting questions about the pressures of publicity. Helping others, not navel gazing, is the Kennedy way. "It's part of the Irish and Catholic thing," he says. He rarely dates, but says he would like to settle down. Smith clearly wants to be left alone to work on what he really cares about--helping to develop prosthetic devices for the victims of land mines.

Kennedys spread their talents widely now, from filmmaking (Rory Kennedy) to running a magazine (JFK Jr.'s George), to working for an upstart telephone company (Mark Shriver). Curiously, in many ways the least impressive Kennedys have taken the traditional route to Washington. The two congressmen-Joe and Patrick-are among the least articulate members of the elan.

Most of the younger Kennedys have the natural charm of the older generation, the twinkle and self-deprecating humor. The physical resemblance to their forebears can be striking. When Bobby Jr.'s eyes turn hard and his voice goes flat as he talks about corporate polluters ("fat cats and crybabies"), he might as well be his father interrogating a Teamster boss. There is a restlessness about all the Kennedys-- a shadow, perhaps, of old Joe's lust for power. Many of the cousins interviewed by NEWSWEEK couldn't seem to sit still. Bobby Jr. twisted paper clips, Christopher drummed his fingers on the table, Stephen Smith Jr. crumpled up bits of paper and fiddled with the reporter's tape recorder. Mark Shriver eyed another reporter's lunch. "You're not going to eat that pickle?" he inquired. Edginess is a birthright. Mark startles so easily that his friends can make him fall off a chair by slamming a door or dropping a book. Joe Kennedy is "a worrier," says Don Dowd, a longtime Kennedy aide. "He worries about every little thing." Another family friend, Gerard Doherty, doesn't like to eat lunch around Joe. "Hey, that looks pretty good. Let me have a bite," Joe will say. The bites,he recalled, go a half sandwich at a time.

The intensity, the mix of duty and entitlement, is genetic. On camping trips, the cousins would dare each other to jump into the water from ever-higher cliffs. (Michael, demonstrating an early heedlessness, usually went highest.) "When I was growing up, if we went more than two weeks without a visit to the emergency room, it was unusual," Says Bobby Jr. The family matriarch, Rose Kennedy, would cite Saint Luke to her grandchildren: To those whom much is given, much is expected. During the early '60s, in the evenings after their baths, the Bobby Kennedy children would get on their knees and pray that God would make Uncle Jack the best president ever and Daddy the best attorney general. Young Kennedys were constantly exposed to impossible role models. At cocktails at Hickory Hill, small children in pajamas mingled with Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Mount Everest, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.

Dinner at the Shrivers', where mentally retarded people were hired as household help, was heavy with notions of duty to the less fortunate. "We talked about what Mom and Dad did [run the Special Olympics and the Peace Corps, respectively]," says Timothy Shriver. "We would hear about Cesar Chavez or something unjust happening to an African-American." Shriver, who exudes a liberal sympathy that remains profound in the Shriver subclan, went on to teach public school in New Haven, Conn., and now runs Special Olympics International. At dinner at the Bobby Kennedys', each child had to come to the table ready to discuss one current event; at the age of 12, the requirement was raised to three current events.

The pressure to perform seems to have been most intense for RFK's children. To a remarkable degree, Jacqueline Kennedy was able to shield Caroline and John Jr. from the worst of the outside world, though security men had to be hired to ward off creepy stalkers. (According to one court document examined by NEWSWEEK, a "John Lee Harvey" left notes with the doorman stating that he "loves" the Kennedy children and "doesn't understand why they do not love him and that he will make them love him.") The Shrivers are slightly less flat-out than their Hickory Hill cousins. When Bobby Shriver lost a boxing match to one of his cousins, his father, Sargent, is said to have consoled the little boy this way: "Maybe Kennedys can't cry," he said. "But Shrivers can." The Shriver children spent more time at theft Maryland estate (entertaining the disabled, who were bused in for summer camp) than they did at the sometimes hedonistic Hyannis Port, Mass., of the late '60s and '70s.

Ethel Kennedy was at once unable to control her children and determined to mold them into True Kennedys. "Every time my mother meets someone with 12 or 13 kids, she cringes," says Christopher. "She doesn't like to get beat." Ethel "didn't hold back on the lung power. There was a lot of screaming at kids when they did something they shouldn't be doing," says Kennedy White House photographer Cecil Stoughton, who was often at the family compound in Hyannis Port. Ethel's friends say she did her best with her huge and-after 1968-fatherless brood, and that more sounds of joy than pain emanated from Hickory Hill. Her sparkle and vivaciousness are evident in her children, but some seem to have suffered at the hands of her demanding nature. Meanwhile, Ted Kennedy dutifully filled in as paterfamilias, racing one day from the bedside of Ted Jr., who was having his cancerous leg amputated, to the wedding of Kathleen, whom he escorted down the aisle-before racing back to the hospital. The senator tried hard to be. a good surrogate father. But pub crawling was probably not what his nephews needed as young men.

Always there was the burden. "After my father died, I had a feeling I should pick up the torch... er, pick up the flag," says Bobby Jr., suddenly uncomfortable at hearing the echo of his uncle Jack's famous phrase. Inevitably there was a price, too. Bobby Jr. was arrested on a heroin charge when he was 29 years old. Patrick had a drug problem as a teenager. Teddy Jr. checked himself into an alcohol-rehab center in 1991. The saddest Kennedy was David, Bobby's fourth child, who saw his father assassinated on TV while he was sitting alone in a hotel room in Los Angeles when he was 12. David died in 1984 of a massive overdose while he was alone in a hotel room in Palm Beach.

Most of the cousins try to live ordinary lives today. Lt. Governor Kathleen mops her own floors. Mark Shriver was late to his NEWSWEEK interview because his 5 1/2-year-old Taurus broke down and he had to get a jump start from a cabby. Joe lives next door to a plumber in Brighton, a working-class Boston neighborhood. What happened to the myth that all Kennedys are rich? "I wish it was true," says Stephen Smith Jr., who drives a secondhand BMW and has "no full-time maid." Some are more well-to-do. JFK Jr. and Caroline profit from their mother's well-invested Onassis millions. Michael bought an $850,000 house on the water in Cohasset. He has made as much as $300,000 a year from Citizens Energy, which was set up to provide cheap fuel oil to poor people but which later branched out into profitable oil and electrical deals.

Politics is still "an honorable profession," in JFK's noble phrase, and it remains the family franchise. Of the 28 cousins, four (Kathleen, Joe, Patrick and Mark Shriver, a state legislator) have run for office and an additional half dozen have a hand in politics or public affairs, either directly or through their spouses. "Politics is fun," says Bobby Jr., though he adds, "It hasn't been much fun for the last three weeks." Ted Sr. pushed Teddy Jr. to run for Congress after Tip O'Neill's Massachusetts seat opened up in 1986, but young Ted resisted. Warm and affable, Ted Jr. has the family charm, but perhaps not the all-consuming drive. He says now he might run for office some day. Anyway, he says, his cousin Joe wanted the seat more.

Even the least likely Kennedys can get the campaign bug. Patrick, Teddy's younger son, didn't even try to compete in the one-upmanship at the family table in Hyannis Port. He lasted only a semester at Georgetown. One student there remembers other freshmen whispering about Patrick's lineage as he passed, head down and alone, through the dormitory hallways. Transferring to Providence College, he was nearly paralyzed by a tumor on his spine. His near miss and recovery "flipped a switch" inside Patrick, says his college roommate Jim Vallee. He decided to run for the Rhode Island Legislature. Ignoring the party elders' admonition to "wait your turn, kid," he began doing what he had watched his family do all his life: campaign. He was following family tradition; after all, JFK effectively jumped his place in line when he ran for the presidency in 1960. Patrick's opponent, a funeral director named Jack Skeffington, knew he was in trouble on Election Day when he saw his campaign manager posing for pictures with the Kennedys. Patrick had lots of help, including his brother, Ted Jr., his shy sister, Kara, and Joe, who helped old ladies up the stairs at the polling place. But Patrick himself was a diligent campaigner. Skeffing-ton later complained that his opponent knocked on his ex-wife's door four times. Running for Congress in 1994, Patrick had that deer-in-the-headlights look and was lucky that the one debate took place during a New England Patriots game. But he won with the promise "I can do more for Rhode Island," a not-so-subtle reminder that he would benefit from his father's Senate clout. Now he is thinking of running for the Senate himself in 2000.

Cousin Joe has a more natural politician's touch. "He's got it!" Ethel is said to have proclaimed as she watched Joe work the funeral train carrying his father's body to his grave in Washington in June 1968, when Joe was 18. But like many Beltway satraps he can be overbearing. His Washington aides used to drop him at the airport for the flight home--and then phone ahead to warn their Boston counterparts about the congressman's mood. His ex-wife Shelia's portrait of Joe in her new book, "Shattered Faith," is devastating: she claims that Joe called her a "nobody" and had her served with annulment papers while he was in the Caribbean with his girlfriend. Joe's-and Michael's--problems have hurt the congressman with voters. A Boston Herald poll in early June found that half of the Democratic voters believed Joe had not been "fully truthful" about Michael's alleged affair. The same poll found Joe about even with his likely opponent for the Democratic nomination for governor, Scott Harshbarger. Still, in a state where many voters still hang John F. Kennedy's picture next to the pope's, it would be foolish to declare Joe a has-been.

Michael, who managed Uncle Ted's 1994 campaign for the Senate, was once regarded as a potential congressman himself. The scandal over the babysitter almost surely dooms his political aspirations. Why--if the allegation is true--would someone with so much to lose take such foolish risks? Some of Michael's friends speculate that, in some strange self-destructive way, he wanted to get caught. He'll never have to carry the torch, er, flag, for the Kennedys again. For the grandson of Joe, the nephew of Jack, the son of Bobby, that may come as an enormous relief.

Pushed to succeed from an early age, RFK's sons, especially Joe and Michael, have led intense lives. Joe, a Massachusetts congressman since 1987, is trying to make the move to higher office by running for governor next year. His polls began dropping, however, when his first wife, Sheila, charged that he tried to bully her into annulling their marriage. Then came allegations that Michael had an affair with a babysitter. So Joe--who aides say advised his brother to seek counseling--publicly apologized for both scandals last week. It is a familiar family tactic: Uncle Ted (left) did the same to save his Senate career after Chappaquiddick in 1969.

Unlike their more rambunctious--and occasionally troubled-RFK cousins, Caroline and John Jr. weren't raised to be madly competitive. After President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, their mother, Jacqueline, made sure they were largely shielded from the sometimes hedonistic culture of Hyannis Port and Hickory Hill in the late '60s and '70s. It worked: John is founder and editor in chief of George, a popular political magazine, and Caroline is a lawyer and author in New York City.

A Dynasty In Decline | News