Patrick Kennedy discusses leaving Congress after 16 years

The senior congressman from Rhode Island is retiring at the end of his term and ready to open up about the decision to leave the family business.
By Philip Rucker
Friday, March 12, 2010

Patrick Kennedy wants to talk.

He leads the way through the corridors of the Cannon House Office Building, which are polished and empty at 10 at night, and unlocks Suite 407. He is 42 and has been in Congress for 16 years, the senior member of the Rhode Island delegation, but this space won't be his for much longer.

He flicks on the lights, and there are the imposing uncles, Jack and Bobby, staring down from their oil portraits. And there are dozens of photos of his father, Edward, a senator from Massachusetts for nearly 47 years, who was buried at Arlington National Cemetery six months ago but whose presence lives on in his son's office: the wooden model sailboat, the stacks of his published memoirs, the bound volume cataloguing his estate.

Teddy Kennedy's youngest child entered the family business at 21, the youngest member of the sprawling political clan ever to win elected office. Now he's leaving, and he talks about anguishing over this decision.

"As exciting and as meaningful as work is and as my career is, ultimately something clicked inside of me that there was something that was missing," Kennedy says. "I want a fuller life."

Alone with a reporter, the congressman seems liberated. He talks for nearly three hours about the great blessings and heavy burdens of being a Kennedy and losing the desire for politics after his father's death.

"For me, I had an audience of one," he says. "That was my dad."

Growing up, he recalls, he was "looking for a lot of attention, which he couldn't give me, and became really kind of inconsolable, and on top of that I had this depression issue. This whole opportunity to, like, overcome this sense of inadequacy and also to be able to be a co-equal, where he didn't have to worry . . . about how I was doing because clearly I managed to get myself enough on track where I had gotten elected to Congress. Clearly I had something going on."

When he's done talking, it's past midnight, and the janitor has long since emptied the trash cans. Kennedy slumps into a couch, in his frayed Levi's, and closes his eyes. Once home that night, he sends text messages correcting some of the anecdotes he told. But he acknowledges: "It's probably the last thing of all the things that a 'press secretary' would want to 'change' about that interview -- lol."

In his generation, there have been more dashing Kennedys, to be sure. But Patrick -- sometimes awkward, often undisciplined, fighting addictions -- has won more elections than any other Kennedy, ever. The Democrat was elected to the Rhode Island legislature while a sophomore at Providence College and has been in public office ever since.

Now, with the opportunity to fully step out from beneath his father's shadow, he is giving it all up, announcing Feb. 12 that he would not run for a ninth House term. He says he'll advocate for mental health and addiction issues from his home in Portsmouth, but won't make any career moves until he leaves.

Kennedy's reelection contest was shaping up to be one of his more difficult races. A poll released just before his announcement found that 56 percent of likely voters viewed him unfavorably. But he says he was not influenced by the turbulent political climate.

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