Living Politics: Are The Kennedys Still A Dynasty?

The White House Correspondents Dinner is an oppressive event: a ballroom full of insufferably self-important Washington insiders stuffed into tuxedos and gowns for a long evening of forced fellowship, bad food and worse jokes. So I sympathized with the stricken, deer-in-the-headlights look Max Kennedy wore as he surveyed that scene last spring. "What am I doing here?" he seemed to be asking himself.

Good question. Handsome, earnest and smart, the 36-year-old son of the late Robert F. Kennedy was poised to run for a congressional seat in Boston, the city from which his family launched a dynasty that helped shape the nation for half a century. But Max flinched. He stunned the world of politics, if not his own inner circle, by opting not to "go."

I have been told by two very good Boston-based Democratic sources that a decisive element in Max's decision was the advice he got from his uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy. Max was counting on Teddy's help, big time, but the senator explained that even if he pulled out all the stops-particularly using his clout with Big Labor-it may well not have been enough to avoid the first electoral loss ever for a family member in the state. "Max wasn't ready, and it wasn't worth the risk," said one source.

Max Kennedy's decision is more interesting for what it says about politics than for what it reveals about him. The Kennedy dynasty is on shaky ground in the place where it was born. If it is to survive (and it almost certainly will) it may well be by way of emigrants-notably to Maryland, where Max's older sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, is likely to be elected governor and already is a major national player.

Ironically, dynasties are in vogue. A president's son is president, and another son is governor of Florida. The new mayor of Los Angeles, James K. Hahn, is the son of a revered local pol. A biography of John Adams, the original Founding Father, is a best seller.

But the other lesson of Max Kennedy's departure is this: dynasties aren't so dynastic anymore. No one can expect annointment without effort. The country has become too fast-paced, and too meritocratic. Connections count, but they aren't decisive. Even if you are a Kennedy in Boston, scions can't just show up. The Old Boy network is just that: old. George W. had to punch the clock as governor of Texas for six years. In L.A., voters admired Hahn's late father, Kenneth, but voted for the son in large part because he had deep experience after serving in various city posts for 20 years.

For much of the 20th century, Boston was to politics as Pittsburgh was to steel: the fiery forge in which Irish-Americans, with a genially cold-blooded eye for assessing human affairs, defined the architecture and style of American public life.

The Kennedy's were the crown jewels of that world, but it's a world that is fading. For one thing, the Irish aren't the force that they once were in the machinery of politics. For a century or more, politics was their primary route to power. No more. They have moved on from, and out of, the cities they ran, into the suburbs and corporate life.

And out in the suburbs, what's left of the political gene doesn't belong to Democratic Party the way it once did. The Kennedys defined the role of the Irish at mid-century, until another Irish-American came along: Ronald Reagan. In the '70s and '80s, it was Reagan who inspired political baby boomers to join the conservative movement and the Republican Party. You could see the results of that historic shift along the rail at Doyle's in Jamaica Plain, a famous Boston-area political watering hole. The shrewd and garrulous young men I saw there in the '90s were no different, I think, from their predecessors a generation earlier-except for the fact that they all were proud to be Republicans.

The district Kennedy was going to run in (up for grabs because of the death of Rep. Joe Moakley) wasn't as hospitable as it may have first appeared. Yes, it's Democratic (winning the primary is tantamount to winning the seat) but not clearly Kennedy territory. And, yes an Irish-surnamed candidate is an almost certain win. But it gets complicated. The term "pro-life Democrat" is practically an oxymoron in politics today, but such creatures still exist in abundance in Boston-and they weren't going to support Max. The Kennedys are pro-choice; another popular contender for the seat, state Sen. Steve Lynch, is pro-life, and would have posed a challenge in the old-line areas. Lynch is also a former ironworker with strong labor ties.

If you're Irish, and still a Democrat, the Kennedys aren't necessarily the inspiration they once were. They were made by the engines of celebrity-Joe Kennedy thought success begins and ends with good public relations-and many of them have been unmade by it as well. Max hardly was immune. Stories of a college-age assault on a Harvard security guard were probably only a foretaste of what was to come from a Boston media now far rougher on the clan than it once was.

There were other choices available in the race, none of them pushovers. If voters were looking for nostalgia, for example, there was Lynch, from Southie, who paid his own way through law school and proudly, and effortlessly, recalls his blue-collar roots.

In the suburbs, partly labels and family names mean little. The meritocracy reigns, and Max didn't have much to claim other than a reputation for earnestness and a seemingly naive (but perhaps also manipulative) willingness to treat reporters as friends. He ran an environmental institute but otherwise had no public track record. He moved from Cambridge into the district in preparation for making the race. It must have been a painful thing: a Kennedy called a "carpetbagger" in the local papers.

But it was true.

Now the question is whether he will stay and dig in. There are precedents in his own family. I covered his big sister's first campaign, which was for a seat in Congress from Maryland. Kathleen, chipper and no-nonsense, donned jogging shoes and literally ran for office. I will never forget the sight of her zigzagging through the streets of Dundalk, a working-class Baltimore neighborhood. She lost. That was in 1982. She responded by sinking roots deeper into Maryland, and she won statewide office as treasurer and then lieutenant governor. Nationally, she became a mainstay of the Democratic Leadership Council, a pro-business, centrist group that is also some distance from her family's ancestral home. She could easily wind up on a national ticket.

And that would be fitting: The Next Kennedy is a woman, from a border state, and her last name isn't even Kennedy.