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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."

Kennedy has gotten rougher treatment in his home region, where Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr last week called him "generally dumber than two rocks."

It's difficult not to feel sympathy for Kennedy, who grew up in a relentlessly scrutinized family in which two of his uncles were murdered. But soft-focus media coverage has given him plenty of chances, far more than would be accorded a run-of-the-mill congressman with his history of self-inflicted wounds.

Thanks to his Capitol fender-bender, however, that is likely to change.

Target in Chief

Are stumbling presidents just plain funny?

Does sinking in the polls produce a rising tide of ridicule?

Do millionaire comedians like kickin' 'em when they're down?

You bet. The number of late-night jokes about George W. Bush has more than doubled this year -- with almost a third of them mocking his intelligence, followed by his declining popularity, his personality, the Dubai ports deal and the war in Iraq.

Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O'Brien averaged 45 Bush jokes a month last year, says the Center for Media and Public Affairs. But for the first three months of this year, they have popped the president 102 times a month.

Leno: "The president does not like change in personnel. He likes to keep the same people. I think he got this from having the same third-grade teacher year after year."

Letterman: "According to a recent poll, three out of five Americans believe George W. Bush should be impeached. And when he heard that, the president said, 'Cool, I love peaches.' "

O'Brien: "In a speech yesterday -- this is true -- President Bush told the Iraqi people to, this is a quote, 'Get governing.' Then, the president introduced his new speechwriter, Larry the Cable Guy."

The ridicule factor is a pretty decent political barometer. In 1998, the number of late-night jokes about Bill Clinton more than doubled -- to more than 140 a month -- as the Lewinsky affair launched endless punch lines about the president as horndog. In Bush's case, his rocky performance has revived the old stereotype of W. as dim bulb, or perhaps made it safer to skewer the president than, say, in the sober aftermath of 9/11.

The importance of humor was underscored in heavy-breathing fashion after Stephen Colbert's performance at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. Some C-SPAN viewers liked his routine, and others -- including most of the media gang in attendance -- did not.

Many liberal bloggers were quick to denounce the mainstream media for not showering the Comedy Central host with publicity and praise. The reason, said these bloggers, was that Colbert had skewered Bush in a way that embarrassed the timid White House press corps.

"Colbert's was a brave and shocking performance," writes Chris Durang in the Huffington Post. "And for the media to pretend it isn't newsworthy is . . . a symbol of how shoddy and suspect the media is." Salon Editor Joan Walsh says "Colbert's deadly performance . . . exposed the mainstream press' pathetic collusion" with the administration.

Really? Or are left-wingers just so mad at the media for not denouncing Bush daily that they prefer the zingers of a fake anchor?

Colbert did take some swipes at the president in the guise of the blowhard pundit he plays on TV. ("You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.") But it was hardly the stinging denunciation being cheered on by his liberal fans. In fact, Colbert was just as dismissive in what he described as his "contempt" for the black-tie crowd of Washington journalists. ("Over the last five years you people were so good -- over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.")

Humor often cuts in a way that journalism doesn't, which is why Bush's late-night drubbing is serious business. Bush's detractors are convinced that Colbert drew blood, and maybe journalists were unenthusiastic because they got scratched in the process. But the jokes wouldn't resonate if much of the country wasn't already unhappy with the president.

Loose Lips Sink Stocks

The stock market dropped last Monday, thanks to Maria Bartiromo.

The CNBC anchor reported that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke believed that his recent congressional testimony had been misinterpreted and that his agency might not be done raising interest rates after all, depending on future economic developments. And how did Bartiromo know this? Bernanke told her at the White House Correspondents' dinner.

"What am I going to do, walk away?" Bartiromo said the next day on CNBC.

Bernanke "never said it was off the record," network spokesman Kevin Goldman says. "She didn't agree to any conditions." Still, the Fed chief will probably curtail his dinner-party chatter.

Unmasked Blogger

Another journalist has blogged her way into oblivion. Gina Vivinetto, music critic for the free tabloid published by the St. Petersburg Times, resigned after acknowledging that she had created a fake personal page on MySpace.com. Times Executive Editor Neil Brown told the Tampa Tribune that Vivinetto used the bogus page to post mocking comments of "a somewhat sexual nature" about a county commissioner.

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