Who will carry the Kennedy torch?

The third generation of this legendary political family has underachieved to date, but would-be leaders are waiting in the wings.

Topics: Ted Kennedy, Democratic Party,

It wasn’t just his stunning looks, his Ivy League credentials or his decent, modest speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention that led people to speculate about John F. Kennedy Jr.’s political future.

It was something more — a sense that he just might have that magic quality that appeals to the part in all of us that longs to be led. Also, of course, it was nostalgia for the days of his father and his uncle Bobby, but there was more to it than that. It was the power of someone who had an ability to appeal to our better angels.

John F. Kennedy had it. Robert Kennedy had it. Did JFK Jr. have it?

Coy refusals to rule out a future run for office were part of his M.O. — the New York Observer recently reported that he had been considering a campaign for the Senate seat that Hillary Rodham Clinton is now pursuing. His friend and colleague at George magazine, Douglas Brinkley, wrote in Newsweek this week, “There was never any doubt in my mind that John planned to run for the U.S. Senate sometime in the next decade.”

Kennedy family associate Bob Shrum seconded that on CBS when he noted, “I think that at some point he would have run for office, and I think he would have been extraordinarily good at it.”

If Kennedy had run, his would have been a powerful candidacy for a nation starving for heroes. Former Nixon speechwriter William Safire acknowledged JFK Jr.’s palpable Kennedy charm. “He certainly had it. He had that charisma, that Kennedy charisma that all the Nixon people deeply resented and envied,” Safire said on “Meet the Press” Sunday. “He could have been quite a candidate.”

Now, tragically, that will never happen — so who today from the Kennedy brood, other than aging Sen. Ted Kennedy, remains to fight the family fight?

Joseph and Rose Kennedy had nine children, six of whom — Jack, Bobby, Ted, Eunice, Patricia, Jean — begat 30 Kennedy grandchildren. Surely, among these men and women with at least remnants of the DNA of power, someone would emerge to lead the charge for Kennedy liberalism. Wouldn’t they?

Not necessarily.

A columnist for the Providence Journal noted that “Kennedys of the third generation have encountered the usual troubles of people with too much money and time on their hands: Their personal lives have been messy; their professional, even political, careers unimpressive.”

That may be so, but there’s still a lot of promising material in the Kennedy third generation.

Some of the family’s failure to produce obvious leaders to date has been by choice. Many of the Kennedy grandchildren are understandably wary of the limelight. Though she lives in the tabloid ground-zero of Manhattan, for instance, John Jr.’s sister, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, 41, is intensely private.

Other than a few charity chairwomanships and a couple of legal books (on the right to privacy), Kennedy Schlossberg has avoided the public spotlight — though she did voice opposition, in writing, to a 1998 Washington state initiative against affirmative action.

Joe Kennedy II, Robert Kennedy’s eldest son, was the first of the third generation to be elected to public office, in 1986, when he won the Boston seat formerly occupied by House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill Jr. Up until that time, Joe had been running the Citizens Energy Corporation, or CEC, providing cheap home heating fuel to low-income families.

As a legislator, Joe Kennedy II was a meat-and-potatoes guy who reminded many observers of the all-business family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy. Unlike his father and his uncle, he was not an orator, a lack that helped prompt the New Republic to put him on its cover with the headline “The Dumbest Kennedy.”

But he was smarter than he was given credit for. He continued to work, true to his CEC roots, on obscure but pithy issues, toughening up ’70s-era laws like the Community Reinvestment Act and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act. Joe II’s legislative efforts eventually gave these two laws teeth, a move that has since been credited with helping low-income Americans get billions of dollars worth of loans.

But Joe II, 47, had a tough year in ’97. First, his gubernatorial hopes were sidelined when his ex-wife published a book offering readers a harsh assessment of their marriage. Then came revelations that his younger brother Michael had carried on a multi-year affair with a teenage baby sitter. And Michael died in a December 1997 skiing accident.

Since then, Joe II has kept a low profile, returning to Boston and the CEC. But it’s tough to imagine that he’ll remain out of politics forever — indeed, rumors that he’ll run for governor in 2002 continue to circulate within Boston political circles.

“The more I’m around politicians, the more I appreciate him,” says a longtime aide to Joe II who continued working on the Hill after his boss left. “As exasperating and infuriating as he was, he’s got a soul. He gives a damn.”

In the late ’80s, Democratic leader Dick Gephardt tried to enlist Joe II into becoming a party spokesman and fund-raiser in exchange for committee chairmanships and a helping hand onto the leadership track. That wasn’t Joe II’s style, however. Impatient and hotheaded, with little tolerance for the go-along-to-get-along ways of the House, he rebuffed Gephardt and did his own thing instead.

Gephardt found a more willing soldier in Joe II’s cousin Patrick, however. The second son of Sen. Ted Kennedy, Patrick was elected to the House in 1994 at the age of 27.

Patrick was lucky he had Gephardt as a steward; he didn’t exactly hit the ground running. The belief that the fabled Kennedy intelligence, as exemplified by JFK and RFK, ran throughout the family was first questioned when Ted Kennedy was caught cheating at Harvard, and his son’s slack-jawed partisan hacking only added to theories of devolution. (New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once suggested that Joe II and Patrick come from “the shallow end of the Kennedy gene pool.”)

Though he has reportedly tended well to the interests of seniors and his home-state military needs, Patrick’s political career has been, well, underwhelming.

But Patrick’s marble-mouthed, rumpled and slightly dim exterior hides the fierce ambition of his father and uncles. Handpicked by Gephardt, now minority leader, to run the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the arm of the Democratic Party charged with reclaiming a House majority next year — Patrick has approached the job with the tenacity displayed in a Hyannisport touch football game.

Since Gephardt gave him the opportunity (and two key aides) last fall, Kennedy’s DCCC has set a quarterly fund-raising record.

Even Democrats concede that Gephardt calls the shots at the DCCC, however, and Patrick’s recent invitation to big donors to attend a Hyannisport clambake dispirited many Kennedy admirers, who thought the gesture crass and reeking of ambition.

The forthcoming retirement of Rhode Island Republican Sen. John Chafee had prognosticators wondering if the hubristic Patrick had designs on Chafee’s seat, but, perhaps sensing that his future is hitched to Gephardt, Patrick opted to stay where he is, for now.

The Kennedy heir with the most promising chance of holding statewide office any time soon is Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, 48, the oldest child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, known by her siblings as “the nun.”

Kennedy women are not encouraged to run for office — Kennedy Townsend is in fact the only one to have done so. And she didn’t look like she was off and running for the political world when she married her Harvard literature tutor and shuffled off to New Mexico.

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But there, in addition to beginning her family of four girls, Kennedy Townsend got her law degree. After moving back East, and losing a 1986 Maryland House race, she wrote a number of articles for the Washington Monthly.

“Our schools are hotbeds of violence, vandalism and unethical behavior,” she wrote in 1992. “You can’t teach community service out of a textbook; it takes time and thought, which, of course, takes effort. And that, for some educators, is a tough concept to accept.”

In ’94, lackluster gubernatorial candidate Parris Glendening tapped her as his running mate, to add some sizzle to his steak, and the team eked out a narrow victory. After a shaky start as the state’s No. 2, Townsend has, like her cousin Patrick, proved an able fund-raiser.

In 1998, for the reelection campaign, Kennedy Townsend raised about a half million dollars — the vast majority of it from outside Maryland — enabling the Glendening-Townsend team to once again defeat its Republican challengers.

Like Patrick, Kennedy Townsend seems to have missed out on a healthy helping of the family charisma. In a 1997 Washington Post interview, she acknowledged that people “expect a great deal” of her because of her name.

“Some expectations are very high, and it’s hard to live up to those expectations. Some people come and maybe want me to be something I’m not. I wish I didn’t disappoint everybody.”

People seem less disappointed these days. By most accounts, Kennedy Townsend is a tireless worker who has grown in her four-plus years in office.

For Republicans, Kennedy Townsend’s uncle Teddy — despite his impressive record of legislative successes — has been reduced to a punch line, a symbol of all that is wrong with liberal Democrats. During last week’s Senate health care debate, you couldn’t hear a Republican mention his opponents without dragging out that nomenclatural albatross “Kennedy” — GOP shorthand for “big government, big taxes, ineffective and out of date.”

But, unlike Ted, Joe II and Patrick, Kennedy Townsend is a “new Democrat.” The Democratic Leadership Council’s Al From has called her “a national leader in the new-Democrat movement” for “her landmark work on crime, community service and character education.”

Days before this latest family tragedy, Kennedy Townsend held a successful fund-raiser at the Baltimore Zoo, a move widely perceived as her first step toward succeeding Glendening when he’s term-limited out of office in 2002.

If she ends up running and winning that governor’s race, Kennedy Townsend will have an ally in the Maryland House of Delegates. Her cousin Mark Shriver, the son of Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, has been serving as a delegate there since 1994.

Many of the Kennedy grandkids seem to have dedicated themselves to working on single issues, rather than the mile-wide-inch-deep-any-issue-and-every-issue world of politics.

The Kennedys have always recited the mantra that “public service is a noble calling,” but some members of the third generation are traveling down paths that don’t appear to lead to Pennsylvania Avenue — though of course appearances may be deceiving.

A number of Kennedy kids have dedicated themselves to behind-the-scenes causes that do their family name proud. Mindful of Rosemary Kennedy — the sister of Bobby and Jack whose retardation and unsuccessful lobotomy was the first family tragedy — many of the offspring have dedicated themselves to helping the mentally disabled.

Kara Kennedy Allen, Patrick’s sister, has served as a media director for a company her aunt, Jean Kennedy Smith, started that allows disabled people to express themselves through the arts.

Timothy Shriver, son of Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, heads the Special Olympics. (John Jr. was also active with the Special Olympics, which was founded by Aunt Eunice.)

Their cousin Robin Lawford, the daughter of Peter and Patricia Kennedy Lawford, helps raise money for the Kennedy Child Study Center, a Manhattan school for the developmentally disabled.

This activism — combined with the instant, unearned celebrity of the Kennedy dynasty name — sometimes is enough to propel at least murmurs of a candidacy. Miami Beach businessman Anthony Shriver is no doubt a mensch; when he was just a student at Georgetown, Anthony started Best Buddies, which pairs volunteers with the mentally retarded for everyday excursions.

It’s the Kennedy mystique more than his achievement with Best Buddies that has led Anthony’s name to have been floated as a possible candidate for mayor of Miami Beach, as well as a possible lieutenant governor candidate in last year’s desperate Democratic scramble to reclaim the Florida governorship from another legacy — presidential progeny Jeb Bush.

Though the Kennedy name and prestige opens doors, some of the grandchildren have had their life’s work thrust upon them. Ted Kennedy Jr., for example, who lost a leg to bone cancer when he was 12, is now a motivational speaker and activist on behalf of rights of the disabled.

Teddy, as he is called, has served on the President’s Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities, on the executive committee of the 1995 Special Olympics World Summer Games and the national policy committee of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Inc.

In no small part due to his courage and high profile on this issue, Teddy Jr. is periodically mentioned as a possible candidate for public office from Connecticut.

The other Kennedy whose activism has Democrats floating his candidacy with crossed fingers and dreams of better days is Robert Kennedy Jr. of New York. Last November, in fact, Robert Jr. placed a close second in a poll of those discussing a run for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s New York Senate seat.

Running two points behind Comptroller Carl McCall, already a proven candidate, Robert Jr. was favored by 21 percent of registered Democrats. His brother-in-law, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, only had 16 percent; Rep. Nita Lowey — the favorite before first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton entered the race — got only 2 percent.

Robert Jr. may be the most Kennedyesque in appearance and style; with his tousled hair, beaky nose and blinding grin, he is almost a mini-me of his father.

Robert Jr. burst onto the national consciousness rather inauspiciously when, in September 1983, he was charged with felony possession of heroin. Since then, however, he’s made a rather noble resurrection.

As senior attorney of the Natural Resources Defense Council and chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeepers, Robert Jr. has litigated numerous cases against corporate polluters.

A teacher at Pace University in White Plains, N.Y., Robert Jr. and the students in his environmental clinic are currently suing approximately 40 corporations for corrupting natural resources. Many of these cases, against both companies and governments for polluting Long Island Sound and the Hudson River, have been successful.

His job has afforded Robert Jr. a fairly high profile in his state, enough so that when Moynihan announced his retirement he considered running for the seat.

But after talking with a number of other officeholders about how little time they get to spend with their families, Robert Jr. bowed out. “It’s a seat that I would love to occupy, but I have five young kids,” he told a local newspaper. “You have to choose between that and your family, and I want to see my kids grow up.”

For many Kennedyphiles, Robert Jr. is the favorite to assume the family mantle that Joe II, Patrick and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend have yet to truly get a handle on.

Robert Jr.’s brother Max, who used to work in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, clearly has the political bug as well. Up in Massachusetts, Max is helming the 2000 reelection campaign of his uncle, Ted Kennedy. Max also recently edited a book called “Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert Kennedy,” published by Harcourt Brace.

Like Max, Robert Kennedy’s other kids are still trying to carry on their father’s work.

Right after finishing law school, Kerry Kennedy founded the RFK Center for Human Rights, on whose board she now sits. But Kerry seems likelier to end up a political wife than a politician on her own accord. In 1990, she married Andrew Cuomo. The couple, who live in McLean, Va., not far from the family’s Hickory Hill estate, has three daughters. Cuomo’s name is continually bandied about as a possible New York gubernatorial candidate; his wife, settling into something resembling the traditional role of a Kennedy woman, is working on a book on human rights.

Not far from Kerry — both geographically and situationally — lives sister Courtney Kennedy Hill, who was once representative for a United Nations AIDS organization. A divorcee once married to a TV exec, Courtney, 42, was recuperating from a skiing accident when her mother told Paul Hill to go cheer her up.

It was kind of a surprising set-up for a mother to make for her daughter; Hill had served 15 years in prison for bombing two British pubs. Hill and his three “accomplices,” known as the Guildford Four, were released in ’89 after the government admitted that evidence had been corrupted. But Ethel’s vibe about the ex-prisoner was on the money — Courtney Kennedy and Hill were married in 1994. Since then, they have been active on human rights issues, specifically those pertaining to political prisoners.

Stephen E. Smith Jr., the son of Stephen and Jean Kennedy Smith and a former Bronx assistant district attorney, works for the Conflict Management Group, an international nonprofit dedicated to, well, managing conflict, whether among gang-bangers or guerrillas.

After he was acquitted of rape charges in 1991, Stephen Jr.’s brother, William Kennedy Smith, became a physician. He now lives in Chicago. You’d think that after having his name and reputation besmirched, Smith would keep it on the down-low. Not so: He recently helped found Physicians Against Land Mines.

Others of the brood are lying low, however, trying to lead as normal a life as a Kennedy can. Christopher Kennedy, a son of RFK, may be best known to the world for telling Vanity Fair that at least eight members of his immediate family attend daily meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. But in Chicago, where his term as chairman of the Convention and Tourism Bureau just ended, he’s famous for his business acumen.

The clear heir to the Joseph P. Kennedy type-A businessman’s trophy, Christopher, last year sold the world’s largest wholesale design center, the Merchandise Mart, which Joseph P. Kennedy bought for $12.5 million in 1945, for $625 million. Christopher Kennedy will remain executive vice president of Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. for at least the next few years.

Other cousins remain as far from public view as they can. Victoria Lawford Pender, Sydney Lawford McKelvy and Kym and Amanda Smith have seemingly done everything they can to keep their names and faces out of the papers.

Some cousins, of course, have gone charging right for the cameras — as members of the media. Maria Shriver, wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a broadcast journalist for NBC. Her brother Robert “Bobby” Shriver, an L.A. venture capitalist, developed a story that eventually became “True Lies” — featuring brother-in-law Schwarzenegger. (According to MSNBC’s Jeannette Walls, Bobby Shriver was also dating Lauren Bessette, Carolyn Bessette’s 18-months-older sister.)

Their cousin, former attorney and substance abuse counselor Christopher Kennedy Lawford, is a low-list actor, and recently produced and appeared in “Kiss Me, Guido.”

Robert and Ethel’s 10th child, Doug Kennedy, co-founded the somewhat lame Third Millennium organization to raise Gen X political awareness as well as, no doubt, his own public profile. After a stint as a cub reporter for the Kennedy-obsessed New York Post, Doug is now a reporter for Fox News in New York.

And Doug’s younger sister, Rory Kennedy, is a documentary filmmaker with a gift for nuance who was, of course, scheduled to get married last weekend.

John Kennedy Jr. is not the first promising Kennedy grandchild to suffer the cruel hand of fate. Before Michael Kennedy’s skiing death on New Year’s Eve 1997, he had been considered the most promising Kennedy — some thought even more so than John Jr.

After Joe II took off for Congress, younger brother Michael ran the CEC and in 1994 helmed his uncle Ted’s successful reelection campaign. He coordinated relief missions to West Africa, co-chaired the Walden Woods Project and worked with Boston’s Stop Handgun Violence Inc.

But all of this was wiped out when the baby-sitter scandal hit, and then of course his life ended when he hit a tree while skiing down an Aspen mountain.

Not that fate has been kinder to the Kennedy grandkids with less potential. In 1984, David Kennedy, another son of Robert and Ethel, overdosed on cocaine and prescription drugs after being kicked out of the family estate in Palm Beach. He was 28. And John Jr.’s younger brother, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, died two days after his birth — only weeks before his father was assassinated.

These four, in tragedy if not entirely in achievement, were every bit their father’s sons.

It would be a shame if the venue of disaster were this generation’s only clear resemblance to the ones who came before them. After all, as Sen. Ted Kennedy noted in his one true moment of Camelotian inspiration — his 1980 Democratic National Convention concession speech — “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.”

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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