Teddy Kennedy's unsettling doppelg

Massachusetts Senate challenger has been accused of plagiarism, womanizing and leaving the scene of a car crash. And yet, he remains upbeat.

By Nicholas Confessore
Published April 4, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Jack E. Robinson III is nothing if not ambitious. Running for the Senate, he likes to say, is the only one of his four life goals that remains unaccomplished -- the other three having been to graduate from Harvard, to be president of an airline before turning 30 and to be financially successful before 40.

"I have always pursued these goals," says Robinson, kicking back in the well-appointed study of his father's old house -- now the de facto headquarters of Robinson 2000 -- in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. "I didn't want to run against Ted Kennedy. I wanted to run for the United States Senate. He just happened to be in the way."

Bravado? Delusion? Uncommon self-confidence? Maybe a bit of each. After all, it requires some such combination to take on a six-term incumbent senator attached, rather conspicuously, to the Kennedy name. You might take yourself seriously, too; Robinson clearly does. For instance, he says "we" a lot, even though at the time he and I spoke "we" consisted mostly of him:

"We plan to take our reform message to the people of this state."

"We're sort of McCain Lite."

"We have not done any polling."

"We are focused on getting signatures."

"We're in it, even though it was a rocky 10 days."

And also: "We've confirmed that it's people from the Kennedy campaign who are behind this. But that's the way they've been practicing politics for upwards of 40 years."

"This," in case you have not yet heard, refers to the "rocky 10 days" following Robinson's decision to run last month -- a decision that initially delighted state party leaders, for whom the prospect of a self-funded black Republican challenging Kennedy was almost too good to be true. And it was: Within days, it emerged that Robinson's personal history was somewhat checkered.

In the mid-1980s, for starters, Robinson was stopped by police for driving under the influence; and after graduating from law school in 1985, he failed the bar exam three times in two states. More recently, a federal judge decided Robinson had lifted portions of his 1994 book on Pan Am airlines from another author. One former girlfriend once took out a restraining order against Robinson, and last month, an unnamed woman told reporters Robinson had groped and forcibly kissed her after a date four years ago, leading Boston papers to dub him "Jack the Tongue."

And just when things couldn't get any worse, they did. While talking to a reporter on his cell phone two weeks ago, Robinson got into a car accident --"Candidate Robinson Steers into More Trouble," ran one headline -- and worse, was accused by another driver of leaving the scene. Within days, the Republican State Committee withdrew its support, and Robinson's candidacy became a punch line. "The sheer volume of the allegations, and the disturbing nature of some of these allegations," announced Gov. Paul Cellucci, "makes it pretty impossible for him to get this campaign off the ground."

Unfortunately, Robinson's campaign lacks a few things besides Cellucci's blessing. So far, the main indications of its existence are a statement filed with the Federal Election Commission, a Web site and Robinson himself. Robinson has no official campaign chest, and refuses to confirm whether or not he plans to spend his personal fortune on his campaign -- or even whether such a fortune exists. He has no campaign headquarters except his basement, no grass-roots network. His platform, such as it exists, doesn't go much beyond stump-speech basics, and although Robinson mentions John McCain a lot, his plan for campaign-finance reform -- eliminate soft money, raise the legal limit for individual contributions -- sounds a lot like George W. Bush's.

But all this is perhaps excusable for a political novice whose campaign can be fairly described as embryonic. In person, Robinson is actually fairly articulate and only mildly eccentric, more professorial than businessmanlike. And, revelations aside, he seems to have a pragmatic grasp of the task at hand, which is to get on the ballot. "The whole race is signatures now," he says. "I want everything focused on getting signatures."

Under other circumstances, the worst one might say of Robinson is that he is a vanity candidate. After all, for Massachusetts politics -- the tawdry history of which includes, as Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr pointed out, one pol who "set up light housekeeping with a male prostitute named Hot Bottom" and another who solicited bribes by referring to a $5,000 payoff as "five bottles of wine" -- Robinson is merely par for the course.

For that matter, Robinson is an almost too-perfect doppelgdnger for Kennedy himself -- sort of like Superman nemesis Nuclear Man, who (in case you missed "Superman IV") was genetically engineered from a strand of the Man of Steel's hair. The main difference is that, in a reversal of the "Superman IV" plot line, Robinson has none of Kennedy's strengths (incumbency, popularity, legislative achievement) and all of his weaknesses. Accused of groping women? Check. Accused of plagiarism? Check. (Kennedy: near-expulsion from Harvard for cheating on a Spanish exam). Leaving the scene of a car accident? Unfortunately, check.

Robinson may be on slightly better footing than Kennedy: Nothing on Robinson ever stuck except the plagiarism charge. The alleged groping victim remains anonymous; the former girlfriend's restraining order was vacated a month after the fact, and the drunken-driving charge was dropped after Robinson passed a breathalyzer test.

But when combined with his genuine talent for exaggeration -- what Robinson says are his "views" published in Business Week, Forbes, the New York Times and the Washington Post, others might call "letters" -- Robinson's personal history begins to seem positively Clinton-like: a mythology of tawdry, petty transgression that sticks in spite of itself. So it was perhaps inevitable when, on March 21, Robinson released "The Robinson Report," a compendium of and explanation for everything he has been accused of or charged with, the impulsive confessional of a truth-telling McCainite with a Clintonian past. "I'm an honest person by nature," Robinson says. "So I think the truth will set you free."

Indeed. For all the derision leveled by Cellucci and other local Republicans, Robinson's misfortunes correlate rather eerily with those of the party that has abandoned him. Long the oppressed minority of Massachusetts politics, the GOP enjoyed a brief renaissance under William Weld, a popular, colorful Rockefeller Republican beloved by the suburbanites. Things have gone rather less well under Cellucci, who took over in 1997 and narrowly won re-election the following year. First came last summer's "booze cruise" scandal, involving MassPort Director Peter Blute, lobbyists, drunken young women and breast-baring. Then came reports that Lt. Gov. Jane Swift had been commuting via state helicopter and "asking" staffers to baby-sit her daughter. Then came news that the "Big Dig," a mammoth highway construction project originally slated to cost under $3 billion, was going to cost about $12 billion -- roughly the size of a tax cut Cellucci had been energetically promoting.

By the time McCain trounced the Cellucci-endorsed Bush in the primary here last month, the state GOP was becoming something of a punchline itself. Indeed, it seems a little premature for state leaders to dismiss Robinson, fantasy candidate though he may seem; they certainly don't seem to have any real ones to send on the campaign trail. In 1998, the GOP fielded candidates in only 18 out of 40 state senate races in Massachusetts and 62 out of 160 house races; for the Congress, they could only muster seven candidates for 10 seats.

Robinson's fortunes, on the other hand, appear to be improving. On Monday, he announced the hiring of two deputy campaign managers, Ian Bayne and Bill Rivers. (Bayne heads a local group calling itself the Massachusetts Republican Society; Rivers -- whom Robinson describes as "formerly with the Republican State Committee" -- was, according to RSC chairman Brian Cresta, formerly a receptionist and office assistant there). Last Tuesday, the Boston Globe ran a sympathetic profile of Robinson on the cover of its metro section, and while I was with him, a local television crew came by to interview Robinson about "the harmful effects of gossip."

After the interview, the camera crew asks Robinson to do something at his desk for an action shot. "Making calls, organizing, raising money, eh?" he says expansively. He picks up a cordless phone, fiddles with it, then furrows his brow and remarks that "sometimes they go into channel switching-mode, and you can't make a call." He then picks up his cell phone, opens it, fiddles, puts it in his pocket without making a call, and sits down at his desk. "Maybe you can just read some paper and make notations and underline," the cameraman says helpfully.

Who said running a campaign was easy? "We're still here," he says later, "and we're going to fight."

Nicholas Confessore

Nicholas Confessore is a writing fellow at the American Prospect.

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