What's in a Name? Plenty If It's Kennedy

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006

It's hard to imagine that Patrick Kennedy would have gotten elected to Congress a dozen years ago without his last name.

It's equally hard to imagine that the media would be going wild about his late-night car crash and prescription drug addiction if he weren't a Kennedy.

The only lingering mystery is why national news organizations didn't pounce earlier on the Rhode Island Democrat's long history of alcohol and drug abuse, depression and a series of downright embarrassing incidents.

The answer in large measure is that Kennedy hasn't been a very important House member. But given the journalistic obsession with the Kennedy family and its tragicomic soap opera, he does seem to have gotten an easy ride -- except in the New England press, which has chronicled his every misstep.

While Kennedy, the 38-year-old son of Ted Kennedy, was widely reported to have held a news conference Friday, it was nothing of the sort. He read a statement designed to elicit sympathy, saying he was going into rehab, and took no questions. This amounted to an age-old damage-control technique: changing the subject.

Kennedy refused to respond to questions about his crashing into a Capitol police barrier at 2:45 a.m. Thursday and whether he had been drinking -- as one Hill bartender told the Boston Herald -- or, as he has maintained, was in a stupor caused by Ambien and another prescription drug. The story gained the whiff of a cover-up when a Capitol Police supervisor blocked any sobriety test.

When national news organizations last week began throwing together their congressman-in-trouble profiles -- along with the inevitable Ambien sidebars -- there was a long list of local clips to pore over.

In 1991, while a state representative, Kennedy acknowledged -- following a National Enquirer story -- having used cocaine as a teenager, but said he had kicked the habit years earlier by checking into a treatment center.

In 2000 alone, Kennedy got into a scuffle with an airport security guard, who said he shoved her during an argument about oversize luggage; admitted taking antidepressants; was accused by a charter company of causing $28,000 in damage to a rented sailboat; and, after a few drinks and an argument, had a distraught date call the Coast Guard to be rescued from his chartered yacht.

Just last month, Kennedy hit another car in a Rhode Island parking lot.

Relatively little of this drew significant national coverage. Among the brief mentions in the New York Times, a 2002 piece on Kennedy's reelection campaign included a paragraph on his personal problems, quoting the congressman as saying: "If you are a Kennedy, people always make more of such things than really exists, and the true Kennedy haters just won't let go of it."

More typical were earlier Times pieces headlined "Wielding the Kennedy Name for the Good of His Party" and "Kennedy With Oomph (and Moneybags) Is Patrick." A 2000 Los Angeles Times piece on Kennedy's money-raising prowess said he can be a "hothead" who "almost came to blows" with a Republican lawmaker. The Washington Post covered a couple of the incidents as gossip items and ran such short news stories as "Rep. Kennedy Hopes to Quit House Fundraising Post."

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