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.
© 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.
Patrick J. Kennedy, who is forty-two, is steeped in his family’s history. His office in Washington, D.C., cluttered with Kennedy photos and memorabilia, is a few velvet ropes short of a museum. He has worked beside busts of his uncles, President John F. Kennedy, murdered four years before Patrick was born, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, slain when Patrick was eleven months. The jewel of his collection is one of JFK’s striped neckties, a gift to Patrick from his cousin Caroline. Kennedy’s office projects the power, history and tragedy of the family name, all of which had been poised to fall on the youngest child of the last of the famous Kennedy brothers.
He was elected in 1994 after three terms in the state legislature, and was reelected to Congress seven times. He’s informal, having started in politics as a skinny, twenty-one-year-old Providence College student who carried his knapsack to the State House. While it could seem as if his father’s first name was Senator, Patrick is just Patrick to friends and opponents, or “Patches” to those who really can’t stand him. Never mar-ried, he was named one of “D.C.’s most eligible singles” last September by Politico, on a list that included Meghan McCain, columnist Maureen Dowd and Senator Russ Feingold.
Still a relatively young rep, Kennedy holds a seat on the influential Appropriations Committee. His work on the parity bill, and his candor about his own problems, have built his national reputation as an advocate for mental health causes. Over two decades in politics, his beanpole frame has filled out — I’ve watched him wipe out a box of glazed donuts in an hour — and he has earned deep lines around his eyes. They’re smile lines, though there has long been, among some, a perception of sadness about Patrick Kennedy, that his public battles with mental health and substance abuse are somehow related to oversized family expectations. He acknowledges receiving treatment for bipolar disorder and for addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs.
“I thought he won almost prematurely,” says Kevin Vigilante, whom Kennedy defeated sixteen years ago to win his Congressional seat. “In some ways I felt sorry for him. When you see people carry the weight of that mythology on their shoulders, it’s kind of a heavy burden.”
In 2009, the burden was never heavier. With Ted Kennedy battling brain cancer, Patrick went into substance abuse rehab in June. The nation watched him eulogize his father in August.
The relationship between Senator Kennedy and Patrick was not just father/son. It was earth/moon. “My dad was the center of my universe,” says Patrick, in one of several interviews we did in December, before he decided he would not run for reelection. With his voice low and ragged, near tears, he offers: “When I was growing up, my mom was battling the disease” — alcoholism — “and for that reason was not able to be present for me in many ways, and my dad was the primary emotional source of connection for me.”
By the way he deeply sighs it seems he’s desperate to change the subject but can’t bring himself to do it. His father was too complex to sum up in a paragraph. Ted Kennedy’s successes and failures had something in common — they were enormous. “Everybody makes mistakes; nobody makes them on the level he did,” which brought Ted Kennedy “a lifetime of grief and heartache that was lived out in public.
“I couldn’t help but inherit a lot of his pain. I felt so defensive for him when it came to people saying ugly things about him. But the thing that people so admired in my dad…he took it in the chin over and over and over again, and he kept getting up.”
Patrick Kennedy has taken it on the chin, too, sometimes from his own fist. Last fall, he started a public spat with Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin over healthcare, abortion rights and what it means to be Roman Catholic. In January, Kennedy was mocked for referring to Democratic nominee Martha Coakley as “Marsha” while stumping for her in the Massachusetts special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. He has withstood other shots that were not his doing: His brother, sister, mother and father all had cancer. Cousins have died young in violent tragedies. His mother Joan’s drunken-driving arrests are well documented.
“I’m very sympathetic to Patrick,” says former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who tells me he’s very fond of Kennedy. “I think at times life has been very difficult and has posed substantial pain. It has been one of the Kennedy challenges; it’s a family that is both blessed and cursed, and I think that Patrick has worked very hard with great sincerity to rise above that.”
The name becomes almost a thing itself.
Patrick Kennedy calls it “my family name” and usually not “my name.” It’s his tacit recognition that the name’s political capital is older than he. “I’m sort of a trustee of it.”
With that famous name, “politics is something everybody in my family in my generation has thought about at one point or another,” says the congressman’s brother, Ted Kennedy Jr.
He describes his younger brother as an “extremely sensitive” person, whose childhood hospitalizations for asthma gave him “incredible empathy” for others. “Without getting overly psychological, I think that’s probably the thing, together with my father as his primary role model, that sparked his interest” in politics. (As an adult, Patrick Kennedy continues to have asthma symptoms; new drugs have improved the way he treats them.)
In his eulogy at Ted Kennedy’s funeral, Patrick said about growing up with his famous father: When his light shined on me alone, there was no better feeling in all of the world.
The reverse was also true, he tells me. He could get resentful when he couldn’t have his father’s attention.
On the other end of the relationship, his father didn’t fully grasp mental illness and addiction. Senator Kennedy had grown up “old-school Irish” in a family that “didn’t talk about feelings a whole lot,” says Patrick. “I know for a fact how the disease of alcoholism is viewed vis-à-vis how my mom was viewed.” Ted Kennedy didn’t believe Patrick had what it takes for politics.
In 1994, Patrick Kennedy declared his run for the open First District House seat being vacated by Republican Ron Machtley. Kennedy campaigned on family clout, as his father had done in his first race in 1962.
“The Kennedy name was associated with getting things done in Washington,” says David Axelrod, who was Patrick’s media consultant in the ’94 race. “I think the name was enormously important.” (The Kennedys always hire good help. Now the White House senior adviser, Axelrod was chief strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.)
Kennedy’s ’94 media strategy was intended to “burnish the sense of advocacy that was very genuinely his,” Axelrod tells me. “He had accomplishments in the legislature that we highlighted, but what came across more than anything was that in addition to inheriting a great name, that name implied the ability to get things done.”
This was the year of the Gingrich revolution, in which the Republicans netted fifty-four House seats and took over the chamber for the first time in forty years. Kennedy won one of four seats that flipped to the Democrats. Gingrich, the Georgia conservative who became House speaker, says Kennedy brought to Congress “the enormous advantage of the strength of his entire family, which automatically made him a national figure. He was a very attractive, charismatic figure in his own right and I thought from day-one that he had a great future.”
Patrick Kennedy was instantly more recognizable than members who had served for years. But he kept a quiet profile, unlike his more combative cousin, Joseph P. Kennedy II, who represented the Eighth District in Massachusetts from 1987 to 1999. “Very, very different styles,” says Gingrich, comparing the cousins. Joseph Kennedy “kind of always had a chip on his shoulder. Patrick doesn’t.”
Patrick Kennedy gravitated toward the center of power. For House Democrats, that was Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, whom Kennedy embraced as a mentor. Gephardt appreciated that Kennedy had started as a state rep. “He wanted to do politics from the bottom up, which was the way I had done it,” Gephardt tells me. The two clicked personally, and after the 1998 elections, Gephardt reserved for Kennedy a seat on the Appropriations Committee, to be delayed for two years. In the meantime, he wanted Kennedy to leverage his family name to raise cash and recruit candidates for the 2000 elections, as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, known as the D triple-C.
In a hallway in the U.S. Capitol last December, Kennedy introduced me to Representative Mike Honda, a Democrat from San Jose. For my benefit, Kennedy busted his chops, “Mike didn’t want to run. Mike, tell him who recruited you for Congress.” This is an old joke between the two reps. Honda, who joined the Peace Corps in 1965 because JFK inspired him, gave the punchline: “I can’t say no to a Kennedy.”
Kennedy believes that chairing the D triple-C was his smartest political move. “Been providing dividends ever since.” Those dividends are relationships and access, the keys to soft power in politics. By the time a piece of legislation gets to an open debate all the important decisions have been made by the inside players. “What happens on the floor,” Kennedy says, “is for the public.”
He has enjoyed flexing those relationships. Last November, he persuaded David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, to visit Providence for a tour of biotech labs in the Jewelry District. With local officials and the media tagging along, the point of all this — in addition to getting on the news — was to show Obey some cutting edge research worthy of federal pork.
The visit gave a good sense of Kennedy’s stagecraft. When a walking tour through the Coro Center began with a tedious account of renovations to the building, Kennedy angrily whispered to his aide George Zainyeh, “We can’t do this bricks and mortar bullshit. We gotta get a scientist.”
By the time the group rounded the next corner, oncologist Dr. Peter Quesenberry was in place to describe research into repairing human tissue at the cellular level. Kennedy folded his arms and grinned pleasantly, a principal showing off a star pupil on parents’ night.
The first critical event of Patrick Kennedy’s political career began with a crunch, at 2:45 a.m. on May 4, 2006, when he crashed his Mustang into a security barricade near the U.S. Capitol. The confused congressman told the police he was driving to a vote. He quickly checked into treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for addiction to prescription drugs.
The event is critical for what comes next.
Publicity over the crash made Kennedy “the public face of alcohol and addiction,” as he told the New York Times after his rehab. The accident enhanced his standing among advocates for addiction and mental health services — the rich guy with the famous name had earned his street cred. “My personal issues have given me entrees into other people’s personal lives in a way I don’t believe most political figures get,” Kennedy says. He became a must-see legislator for any group pushing mental health or addiction issues on the Hill.
While in treatment, Kennedy got a call from Jim Ramstad, a Republican representative from Minnesota, and a recovering alcoholic. During several in-person visits, “Patrick just poured out his heart to me,” recalls Ramstad, who left Congress in 2009. “I knew he had an excellent chance for recovery because of his gut-level honesty and candor.”
In the House, Ramstad and Kennedy cooperated on the mental health parity legislation. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis says the legislation will improve insurance coverage for more than a hundred million people. The point behind the legislation, she says, is that chemical imbalances in the brain are physical problems and should be treated no different from a broken bone or an infection.
“Patrick really worked his ass off on that bill,” says Representative John Sullivan, a Republican from Oklahoma who helped round up GOP votes for parity.
One of the most conservative House members, Sullivan is also one of Kennedy’s best pals in Congress, a close friendship between political opposites similar to Ted Kennedy’s odd-couple camaraderie with conservative Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, of Utah.
When Sullivan checked into the Betty Ford Center for an alcohol addiction last May, Kennedy called to encourage him. “Patrick’s a great resource for me,” Sullivan says. “On the floor we can talk about stuff. We cut right through all the crap, right to the heart of the matter. I don’t really have anyone in Congress that I can talk to like him.”
He thinks Kennedy hasn’t gotten enough credit for being a skilled inside player. “That’s really how Patrick works. He’s got networks of people he knows, not only in Congress but across the country. He’s a lot like his dad and works with people on the other side of the aisle more than people know. That’s how he does it, by building relationships. If I can help him with something, I certainly would. I’d go out of my way. I think others would too.”
Patrick Kennedy’s signature legislation had a profound effect on his most important relationship. In carrying the parity bill in the U.S. Senate, Ted Kennedy became immersed in what Patrick calls the mental health community, a network of advocates with personal connections to people with addictions or mental illness. “My dad had all these people coming up to him saying, ‘Your son Patrick is leading the charge on this and we’re so grateful.’ And I think he became less judgmental of those suffering from the disease, including his own son.
“I feel so blessed, having been through a lot and feeling a lot of shame at some trouble that I managed to get myself into, at the end of the day…my dad couldn’t help but see the political power in the work I had done in mental health, and the fact his son had become a voice for this movement just by dint of my own experience.”
The kid who didn’t seem to have what it takes, “really was able to come full circle with my dad.” Patrick Kennedy insists that erasing the stigma of mental illness is a civil rights issue for the modern day, advanced by the parity bill. “I have managed — improbably, inconceivably — to not only live up to my family’s legacy on civil rights, but to add to it.”
For his car crash, Kennedy pleaded guilty to impaired driving. That fall, he was reelected with 69 percent of the vote against two underfunded challengers.
“The thing I find remarkable is that [Kennedy] has managed — seemingly without trying — to lower his own bar of expectation with the media and the state of Rhode Island,” says Republican David Rogers, who twice challenged Kennedy. Though he likes Kennedy personally, Rogers thought the local news coverage of the Washington car crash had a tinge of sad inevitability, the sense that an occasional embarrassment was the price of being represented by Patrick Kennedy.
WHJY morning DJs Paul & Al have been mocking the Kennedys on Providence radio for some twenty years. Al Matthews, who imitates voices for the show, created a giggly caricature for Patrick, which he described to me as a mix of Beaver Cleaver and a deer gazing into oncoming headlights. That caricature rang true for roughly one-third of voters, who consistently voted against Kennedy. The problem for challengers has been pushing that number much higher.
In the 2002 campaign, Rogers attacked Kennedy with a stark TV ad about two embarrassments: In March 2000, Kennedy had shoved a female security guard in a rush to catch a plane at Los Angeles Airport; and that August, a charter company accused Kennedy of trashing a rented yacht. The attack ad “was real puerile, juvenile stuff,” Rogers says now. But to get media attention, “We needed to do something outlandish. I’m not proud of it.” The ad brought three days of press coverage. That November, Kennedy rolled to victory by twenty-two points.
Kennedy gave Rogers more ammunition for their 2004 rematch. In a 2003 speech to young Democrats, Kennedy denounced President Bush’s tax policies. “I don’t need Bush’s tax cut,” he said, “I have never worked a fucking day in my life.” Press aides gamely hosed down the fire, explaining the remark as a self-deprecating joke that flopped. (The joke wasn’t even true, say Kennedy’s close friends, who claim he rarely takes a day off.) Kennedy won the rematch by twenty-eight points.
Republican Scott Brown’s surprise win in the Massachusetts special election for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat gave the Rhode Island GOP hope that Patrick Kennedy could be ousted this fall. The party had already established a website, dumpkennedy.org, as fund-raising vehicle and a depository for Kennedy gaffes. Last time I checked, it featured a Fox News clip about Kennedy’s tiff with Bishop Tobin, and an unflattering photo of the congressman that looked as if it was snapped after Kennedy had been poked in the stomach.
On paper, Kennedy’s district, which includes northern Rhode Island and the East Bay, is tough ground for Republicans. Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for The Cook Political Report, says the district leans thirteen percentage points toward the Democrats, as compared to the entire nation. It’s the eighty-first most liberal district out of 435.
It’s doubtful Kennedy could have been beaten this fall. His fundraising network is massive. His voting record matches up well with his district and his office is known for good constituent services, says Darrell West, a former Brown University political scientist now at the Brookings Institution. There’s a reason the national reelection rate for House incumbents averaged 96 percent during the past six cycles. “If you’re paying attention to the home district, you’re virtually unbeatable.”
Ted Kennedy’s cancer diagnosis in 2008 was the other critical event in Patrick Kennedy’s political career, and the one that helped to end it.
After the diagnosis, Patrick spent as much time with his father as his Congressional schedule would allow. He recalls, “I’ll never forget what he said to me [in late summer, 2008]; he said, ‘Can you stay at the house with me and just clear your schedule?’
“We had a couple of weeks. I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life. His just asking me to be there was the greatest gift he ever gave me in his life.” The words are thick in Kennedy’s throat and they come out in a hoarse whisper. The hurt over his father’s death is still just below the surface.
Throughout Ted Kennedy’s final year, Patrick grew closer than ever to his brother and sister, Kara. Their father “just knew we were of him. We weren’t political in his world. We weren’t subject to the political winds in terms of our favor of him.
“I can’t imagine if I had a year to live and I didn’t have kids. All the legislative accomplishments in the world wouldn’t matter.”
He buried his father in August. He attended tributes throughout the fall. Then finally at Christmas, Patrick Kennedy took some time alone to think. “It’s pretty simple in this respect: I went through something that caused me a great deal of soul searching and self-reflection. Right now, a personal life is of greater value. Emotional connections that are real and loving and personal just trump everything else.”
One of the remarkable things about Patrick Kennedy is that despite the perks of his upbringing, he still manages to be awed. A full-throated history geek — like his father — he’s awed by America’s past, and by his family’s place in it. While I was visiting him in Washington, Kennedy received several photographs that had been sent to the White House for inscription. In one picture, Patrick stands with President Obama in the Oval Office in front of the very desk John F. Kennedy had used in that room. Kennedy read the handwritten inscription aloud, “Dear Patrick, the dream lives on because of you. Thanks for your friendship, Barack Obama.”
The dream lives on — words drawn from Ted Kennedy’s convention speeches.
“Isn’t that frickin awesome?” Kennedy shouts. He’s so excited he punches my arm. “Look at that! In front of my uncle’s desk.”
If Ted Kennedy was Patrick’s model for his public life, his aunt, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, is the model for what comes next. As a private citizen, she leveraged the family name to found and promote the Special Olympics, now a worldwide organization. “It’s our family’s biggest legacy,” says Patrick. “I’m awed by it.”
And for his next act?
He’s not sure. The whole point of having a private life is that what he does is nobody’s business. But he’ll do something to continue to serve the issues of mental health and addiction. “Service is in my future. I know it as fact that service is an essential part to maintaining your sobriety.”
If he wants to work hands-on with patients, he might need to go back to school. Or, old pal Dick Gephardt would love to have Kennedy join his work on medical innovation issues.
“There’s a hole in the soul that we all try to fill, sometimes with the wrong things, like booze or drugs,” Kennedy says. “Society would tell us to fill it with consumerism. But it’s only really filled through love and service, by serving a high purpose. By doing God’s will.”
He doesn’t need a big job, he says, just a meaningful one.
Patrick Kennedy grew up in his father’s shadow, but he has decided he’s not condemned to grow old in it.
© 2010 Rhode Island Monthly Communications, Inc.