Sobering Times

The fall from Camelot to courtroom has prompted Ted Kennedy to talk about toning down his behavior. But even close friends wonder if he can truly change without facing up to his problems with alcohol.

To the Kennedy children, he was the "cool" uncle. He was more than the paterfamilias who never missed a wedding or graduation, who took them all to mass on Sunday. He was fun. He could take the boys barhopping and skirt-chasing, laughing, winking, telling bawdy stories and behaving like the adolescent that, in some ways, he remained.

But if Sen. Edward M. Kennedy takes the stand in a Palm Beach courtroom to describe how he awakened his nephew Willie Smith and his son Patrick sometime after 1 a.m. on Saturday of Easter weekend to go out for "a couple of beers," the figure he cuts will be merely sad. He may have to answer to what he was wearing at 3:15 a.m. (reportedly, just a long oxford-cloth shirt) and whether, a few hours later, he tried to avoid the police who wanted to question him about the incident in Palm Beach, where his nephew is charged with rape.

For Kennedy, the most private of public men, any time on the stand will be excruciating, more painful, even, than the long hours he spent in October mutely enduring the Clarence Thomas hearings. Kennedy, the great legislative defender of the rights of women and minorities, was "the first senator to sit through three days of hearings with a bag over his head," wrote humorist Dave Barry. It was an image of a man shamed into silence by his past, that will "and should" come back to haunt the senator from Massachusetts, editorialized the usually loyal Boston Globe.

Teddy Kennedy turns 60 next year, too old, he privately admits, to play the party boy. There has always been a contrast between Senator Kennedy, the highly effective lawmaker, and the wastrel Kennedy of Chappaquiddick. The aging Youngest Brother is finding it harder and harder to follow the family tradition of mixing hard work in the public arena with the private pursuit of pleasure. His older brothers were martyred before their sins caught up with them. Now Kennedy must bear the brunt of resentment from a public that feels betrayed, not only by his own highly publicized indiscretions, but by the revelations about Jack and Bobby. Once the carrier of the family flame, he has become the living symbol of the family flaws.

For the first time in his life, Kennedy is talking with friends and family about moderating his lusty tastes and toning down his aging frat-brother behavior. The change is welcome to a family that has fallen from mythic grace to tawdry spectacle. But privately, even some of Kennedy's closest friends wonder if the senator can truly change--without facing up to some hard truths about his relationship to alcohol.

The Teddy Kennedy who testifies before TV viewers will not look like the bloated caricature of the tabloids. He has shed some 25 pounds, in part by drinking very little. At the office, he has been especially considerate of staffers lately, and his political allies have been surprised to receive cheery handwritten notes. At cocktail parties and receptions, he has been subdued and abstemious. No late-night hoots for the senior senator from Massachusetts. "You could stake out La Brasserie [scene of some of Kennedy's wilder moments] for the next five years and you wouldn't catch him having after-dinner drinks," says a longtime adviser. Even more dramatic was his acknowledgment in a speech at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government last October of his "shortcomings--the faults in the conduct of my private life. I realize that I alone am responsible for them," he quietly conceded, "and I am the one who must confront them."

Political necessity, more than any sudden self-knowledge, propelled the speech. Massachusetts polls showed him sinking, even among the True Believers, voters who had always forgiven Kennedy indiscretions. His unfavorable rating had soared near 50 percent, and one poll showed him losing the 1994 Senate race to Republican Gov. William Weld by a 25-point margin. The surveys are probably more a warning shot than an accurate prediction of Kennedy's demise, but for a man who has never won less than 60 percent of the vote in the Bay State since coming to the Senate, they were nonetheless sobering.

Kennedy's concession seemed meager to some observers, mere words scripted by a speechwriter. But the senator's inner circle knew how difficult it was for him to make any mea culpa. He has spent so much of his life on display-and his family has lost so much, so publicly-that he feels entitled to a private self. His speech "may not have been much by the standards of Oprah," said Ann Lewis, a Democratic activist, "but by the standards of the Massachusetts Kennedy tradition it was a very big step. "

The family has always favored action over reflection. Robert F. Kennedy used to say that he hated "couch questions" from reporters trying to pry into his inner thoughts. Teddy Kennedy is not "the kind of guy who goes around saying, "Gee, the angst is heavy this week'," says former speechwriter Robert Shrum. Rueful humor is usually Kennedy's way of showing pain-and of distancing himself from it. He laughed when Willie Smith's lawyer, Roy Black, asked prospective jurors which Kennedy they admired least. (More often than not the answer was "Teddy.") "My God, we're paying this guy!" Kennedy exclaimed to an adviser.

Growing up, Rose and Joe's youngest child saw that Kennedy men were held accountable for their public actions, not their private lives. He laments that he lives in an "age of cheap melodrama," when public men are reduced to stagy photos in People magazine. He works harder and more effectively than most senators, even if he has been out drinking the night before. Every night he carries home a battered briefcase stuffed with homework--"The Bag," it's called by his first-rate staffers, who jockey to have their memos read first--and he has been known to pull all-nighters just to prep for hearings. As the chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, Kennedy passed 54 bills in the 101st Congress-more domestic social legislation from the committee than at any time since the legendary 89th Congress of the Great Society era. With health care and the economy high on the domestic political agenda, Kennedy can expect to remain in the thick of things.

Indeed, even in private Kennedy denies that he has a drinking problem. He can quit for a time-and does, every year, from Jan. 1 until his birthday, Feb. 22. Unlike the stereotypical alcoholic, he can take just one drink. Kennedy is embarrassed by the publicity brought on by his carousing, but he does not suffer the dark nights of the soul of a drunk who is bottoming out. Booze does not make him maudlin or mean. He tells his friends that he likes to drink. Sober, he can be socially awkward and tongue-tied, conscious of lacking his brothers' verbal grace. At cocktails, he is happy, funny, loose; he becomes once again "Smilin' Ed" who amused his brothers back at the Owl Club at Harvard ("the Hoot Frat") with ribald jokes and songs. A couple of scoops can make him witty--like Jack.

At work, too, despite three decades of political success, Kennedy is by no means relaxed or easy company. His staffers dread getting caught in a traffic jam with him; his driver has been known to cut in front of cars to head off a blast of impatience. In the office he can be distracted and cranky. He carries with him, after all, not just the petty annoyances of the day but the ghosts of a murderous past. No wonder that by evening he often seems like a man who, well, needs a drink.

The way to handle drink, Kennedy says, is by simple willpower. Kennedy men have always competed at pleasure as well as at work, pushing the limits at every game from touch football to "scoring" with women. But Teddy has always had trouble controlling his appetites; he was a chubby little boy who emptied his plate faster than anyone else at the table. As an adult "he'll down a couple of bottles of champagne in front of you," says one friend. "When everybody else is sipping, he's slurping." Ironically, Kennedy told friends last year that he knew he could no longer hit the bars of Palm Beach. He even let lapse his membership at Au Bar, the in club. He stayed away-until Easter weekend, when he wound up at Au Bar again, with Willie and Patrick in tow. Kennedy's public embarrassments date back for decades. There are the widely known tales of him smashing photographs and chasing waitresses with another hell-raising solon, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. Of him staggering, drunk, down the aisle of a commercial airliner on the way back from Alaska chanting "Es-ki-mo Power!" Of him, tragically, driving Mary Jo Kopechne off a bridge at Chappaquiddick two decades ago. Even the impending Willie Smith trial did not entirely slow him down last summer. Guests at a Nantucket dinner party watched with a certain awe as an inebriated Kennedy made a lewd toast and tried to seduce his host's daughter.

Such revels are not nightly occurrences. Most evenings find Kennedy at home, sipping a weak Scotch and perusing the contents of The Bag. He lives alone in his McLean, Va., house, although he often has a girlfriend around. His relationships tend to last several months, and most are not with "bimbos," says his friend Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys," but rather with substantive fortyish women. Kennedy remains very close to his children: "both mother and father," says Kearns Goodwin, to Edward Jr., 30, Kara, 31, and Patrick, 24. When Teddy Jr. lost a leg to cancer as a boy, Kennedy slept beside his hospital bed;when the senator went through his divorce, he spent so much time with Patrick that a friend calls them "Siamese twins." He has a cordial relationship with his ex-wife Joan, who is a recovering alcoholic.

There is no one, either among his family or close friends, who is willing to tell Kennedy he has to stop drinking-in clinical jargon, to "intervene." The family tradition holds that the women are long suffering and the aides and advisers jealously protective. Even the townspeople of Hyannis Port cut him slack. When he enters a nightspot in the summer resort, "he finds a whole roomful of enablers," says a family friend. More than two decades ago, one close friend--former Iowa senator John Culver, a Harvard football mate of Kennedy's--reportedly told him that he had to knock off the drinking. Kennedy didn't speak to Culver for four years. "It was always cited as an illustration of what happened if you tried to talk to Teddy about booze," one insider recalled.

Today Culver has regained his friendship with Kennedy, and the two often talk late into the night. But Culver, a onetime hard drinker himself who had to quit more than a decade ago, has not tried to force the issue of Kennedy's drinking. Culver himself declines to discuss his private conversations with his old friend. But according to knowledgeable sources, Culver does not believe that Kennedy is ready to quit.

If and when the time to intervene finally comes, the impetus may well come from within the family. "The whole ethos of the Kennedys has been to keep things in the family so they can deal with it themselves," says Kearns Goodwin. Willie Smith's predicament is not Kennedy's fault in any real sense, but he keenly feels responsible for what happened on his watch. "Letting down the family, the next generation, is something that weighs heavily on him," says Richard Goodwin, a Kennedy adviser and Doris's husband. "If he's done anything to hurt the careers of the younger kids, that would hurt him the most."

Kennedy men have long been notorious as womanizers but not as drinkers. Though Kennedy's grandfather kept a tavern, and his father, Joseph, was a bootlegger, neither one had much taste for the stuff, nor did their sons--except for Teddy. No surprise then, that the denial remained strong for the youngest brother. To admit that he could not control his behavior would be for Teddy an implicit repudiation of his brothers' lifestyles, says one family insider. Worse, "it would be an admission that he couldn't play the game as well as they did. He alone couldn't pull it off."

Racked by drugs and alcohol, the third generation of the dynasty has been more willing to confront their own excesses. Teddy Kennedy was upset last summer when his son and namesake, Teddy Jr., checked into an alcohol treatment center for three weeks. Bobby Kennedy Jr., a leader of the Kennedy children and at one time the most wild, is now a faithful member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Asked by NEWSWEEK whether he thought his uncle Ted could control booze, or whether he needed to stop drinking altogether, Bobby Jr. answered with a long silence. "I'd rather not talk about it now," he finally said.

Last July, on the day that Teddy Jr. publicly announced that he had sought treatment, an aide to Kennedy watched as his boss barreled onto the Senate floor to take on Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Kennedy's right-wing nemesis wanted to put forth an amendment that would send doctors who know they are HIV positive to prison for 10 years if they fail to tell patients of their AIDS infection. Helms's amendment was "baloney!" cried Kennedy, the color in his face rising, his Boston baritone swelling With indignation. Kennedy's aide was struck by the force his boss seemed to be pouring into the debate. It was as if the senator was compensating for his private hurt by doing what Kennedys have always done best, fighting for public causes. But the aide, like millions of Americans, understood that Kennedy faced a more private battle as well. It is a struggle that has already spilled into the political arena, and it threatens to undermine, if not one day end, his ability to lead.