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His Father's Son

As the youngest child of Ted Kennedy, Patrick Kennedy has become the heir apparent to a political dynasty. But six months after his father’s death, he reveals what that watershed moment taught him and why he won’t run for Congress again this November.



Photograph by Patrick O'Connor

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© 2010 Rhode Island Monthly Communications, Inc.

Patrick Kennedy talked for hours in his big, empty house. Just talked and never got up. He talked until the fireplace held only embers and dusk had fallen and the room had gone dark around him and he was nothing but a silhouette and a voice.

What that voice in the dark begins to explain is why Kennedy will not stand for reelection to Congress this fall.

He’s held political office his entire adult life, but says he’s a different person now than he was twenty-two years ago when he first ran for state representative, different, even, than he was two years ago, before his father, U.S. Senator Edward 
M. Kennedy, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

He still wants to serve, but there are other ways. “I’m not going to be afraid to leverage my political value,” he says. “I just won’t have to do it twenty-four/seven.”

Instead, he wants a private life outside the fishbowl of public office.

That’s the neat and rational reason Kennedy will retire from the U.S. House after sixteen years when his current term runs out in January.

How he arrived at this point of clarity is a longer story that begins in his youth, winds through his personal struggles and public accomplishments, and ends at his father’s final days.

***

The eye staring at Patrick Kennedy is the color of cold fog; it’s the ghost of an eye, dull and dead, made even more startling because the eye beside it is clear and blue. The last thing that dead eye saw was a car bomb exploding, five years ago, in Baghdad. The man who gave his eye for his country is Donald Urbany, a twenty-seven-year-old from North Carolina with fine southern manners and a traumatic brain injury.

Urbany has come to Washington, D.C., in early December, at the request of the National Organization on Disability, to lobby for money for career counseling for wounded vets. He has come with his wife, Jennifer, and their seven-month-old son, who is getting cranky in the Capitol Hill office of the Rhode Island representative with the famous family name.

“If I’m going to provide for my family,” says Urbany, “I’m going to have to go back to school.”

This is the work of a congressman. Not the kabuki dance on the House floor for the amusement of shut-ins watching C-SPAN. This is the work of a congressman — look a young father in his dead eye and figure out how you’ll help him. Mental health and brain issues are square in Kennedy’s wheelhouse, the only member of Congress, as far as he knows, who acknowledges receiving treatment for mental illness. He was a key rep in pushing for mental health “parity” legislation, to require most insurance plans to cover mental illnesses the same as any physical ailment. After kicking around Congress for more than a decade, parity passed in 2008. For Patrick Kennedy, the bill was his Holy Grail.

He speaks slowly to the Urbanys, a little gravel in his throat, closing his eyes for long stretches as if there are crib notes tattooed inside his eyelids. He says he has personally addressed mental health with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, “who is very aware that the signature wound of this war is the unseen”— traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress. “We don’t want them to become the Agent Orange of this war.”

Then the baby throws up on the carpet. His mother falls mortified to the floor to blot the mess. Kennedy casually waves her off, “They have folks here to do that.” He’s thinking out loud about what levers need to be pressed. “We’re fortunate to have a Democratic administration, one that will take your calls. That’s where you can really have some yank, especially in an administration where you have some friends.”

The temptation to compare Patrick Kennedy’s career to that of his late father — a lawmaker of legendary yank — is irresistible, if a little unfair. On this point, though, the comparison holds up. By many accounts, Patrick is an accomplished inside player in Washington, who understands that more work gets done in the halls of Congress than on the floor.

But while Ted Kennedy was the rock of liberalism in American politics, Patrick is a man of contradictions. Seemingly without the political talents of others in his family, Patrick has won more elections than any Kennedy in the family tree. He 
rebounded from the career-killers of alcoholism and mental illness, to embrace them as his career-causes, which he will carry on after politics. He can be impulsive and hyperbolic, yet is known in Congress as a conciliator.

Donald Urbany gushes about his boy’s brush with celebrity. “When he’s older I can tell him he puked on a Kennedy’s floor,” he tells the congressman, sweetly. “It’s been an honor to meet you, knowing your family.”

Knowing your family…

Maybe the biggest contradiction of all is that a shy, awkward kid whose shoulders once seemed too narrow to bear the weight of a political dynasty would be the one to have it. And then once he did, he’d walk away.