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A Kennedy Juggernaut

IN 1994 KEVIN VIGILANTE, AN M.D. AND political novice, ran for Congress from Rhode Island against Sen. Edward Kennedy's youngest son, Patrick, then 26. The Wall Street Journal predicted the race would be "a small classic." A young filmmaker about the same age as Patrick had the same hunch. For a PBS documentary called Taking On the Kennedys (May 28), Joshua Seftel trailed Vigilante with a Hi-8 handycam, recording in telling detail what happens to those who dare challenge the myth and machinery of Camelot. As Seftel says in his introductory voice-over, the good doctor "was about to get the political education of a lifetime."

Compared with most politicians, Vigilante, 39, seems almost comically overqualified for public service. Worked his way through college. On the faculty at Brown. Set up an inner-city clinic for women with HIV. Watches "Seinfeld." It's very hard not to like this guy. Kennedy, by contrast, spent six years in the Rhode Island statehouse, a part-time job that pays $300 a year. In high school, he went into rehab for coke addiction. His testimony at William Kennedy Smith's rape trial backed up his cousin's alibi. So, given the choice between Father Teresa and the silver-spoon scion, where would you cast your vote?

If you're part of Rhode Island's large senior-citizen community, the answer is Ken-ne-dy! Ken-ne-dy! They love him. One elderly woman says she's "thrilled to death" to meet the lanky, grinning Patrick. John Jr. signs autographs; Caroline and Ted show up when needed. The biggest celeb Vigilante can swing is William Bennett. A talk-radio host takes up his cause. "I'm assuming you're twice as smart as Patrick," she coos. "But that's not saying much."

Vigilante can't summon up that kind of vitriol. He calls Kennedy "a nice kid" after their televised debate and vows, "I'm not gonna make this dirty." But the Republican underdog reluctantly agrees to "go negative" when his opponent does. Kennedy accuses the doctor of having paid for medical school with the proceeds from a phony lawsuit. Vigilante counters with a sweet little old lady who says Patrick never paid her $3,400 in back rent. "He said he didn't have the money," she whimpers. "But he's a millionaire." The uglier it gets, the more dis- illusioned the idealistic Vig- ilante becomes. Kennedy spends close to $1 million on the campaign; Vigilante, about $800,000, with half of both war chests going to TV spots. "In the end those ads just cancel each other out," says Vigilante. "It's crazy. You waste all this time to get all this money to put ads on the air that don't really mean anything." Local politics, in all its low-rent chicanery, is just like the big time. That point isn't original, but Setfel's home-video vrit style gives it a human face.

Kennedy won by an 8 percent margin. The program's chilling postscript notes that Vigilante has gone back to working with HIV-infected women (and crusading for human rights in Sudan), while the congressboy is expected to go after the U.S. Senate in the year 2000. He's up for re-election this year. So far, no one has volunteered to run against him.

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