Patrick Kennedy discusses leaving Congress after 16 years

By Philip Rucker
Friday, March 12, 2010; C01

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.

Some of his frustration was evident on Wednesday, though, when he unleashed on the House floor a blustering and angry condemnation of the news media.

"If anybody wants to know where cynicism is, cynicism is that there's one, two press people in this gallery," Kennedy yelled during a debate about Afghanistan, his voice cracking and his arms flailing. "We're talking about Eric Massa 24-7 on the TV," he said, referring to the former congressman. "We're talking about war and peace -- $3 billion, 1,000 lives and no press! No press!"

"You want to know why the American public is fit? They're fit because they're not seeing their Congress do the work that they're sent to do. . . . It's despicable, the national press corps right now."

Kennedy has long scorned the 24-hour cable news cycle that dominates Washington, one piece -- if only a small one -- in his decision to leave. Still, he notes that he is not retiring for good. "I consider it taking a sabbatical," he says. He will transfer his roughly $500,000 in campaign money to an interest-bearing account, which he says he might tap if he runs for the Senate someday.

* * *

In phone conversations, text messages and e-mails over several days, Kennedy doesn't volunteer many specifics about his struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction, depression and bipolar disorder. He assumes his story is known. And it is:

Treated for cocaine use as a teenager; went bar-crawling in Palm Beach, Fla., with his father and his cousin William Kennedy Smith, who was later acquitted at trial of raping a young woman that night; accused of shoving a security officer at Los Angeles International Airport; crashed his convertible into a concrete barrier at the Capitol while under the influence of prescription drugs.

"I used to feel like, 'Oh, my God, it's all a personal weakness of mine,' " Kennedy says. "Maybe I didn't measure up. . . . When I was growing up and my mother's alcoholism -- and this has gone back in my family's history, and I'm sure that part of it is genetic -- the shame, especially being in public life, that I felt as a result of that and the notion that I would end up myself bearing that same feeling of shame, that I was somehow less than or weak because of having the same illness. . . .

"But I managed to succeed in a socially acceptable way, i.e. in the family business of politics, which if there were ever a business where you would think that would be the biggest death knell, it would be in politics."

White House adviser and longtime friend David Axelrod says: "There was a lot of tension, and Patrick was very focused on not disappointing" his father. "That's a heavy legacy to live with."

After the car crash in 2006, Kennedy went public with his illnesses. He checked into the Mayo Clinic for chemical abuse treatment and attended recovery meetings. He returned to rehab, including last summer, but he doesn't say how long he has been sober. "I'm sober for today, and that's the way I prefer to keep it," he says, noting that tracking by days and months "gets all distracting."

Regardless, he is committed to de-stigmatizing mental illness and addiction, turning a political liability into a strength.

"He's bared his soul to the whole country," says former congressman Jim Ramstad, a Minnesota Republican and recovering alcoholic who became Kennedy's Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. "Were President Kennedy to write a sequel to 'Profiles in Courage,' his nephew Patrick would occupy a full chapter -- no question."

The 2008 Mental Health Parity Act, which mandated that health insurance plans cover mental illness like they cover physical illness, is Patrick Kennedy's greatest legislative achievement. His father helped secure passage in the Senate, but Patrick's openness about his own battles helped pull back the veil of shame.

"Just in the last few years, I have begun to see the stigma lift a little bit," says Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady and longtime advocate on mental health issues. Adds David Wellstone, son of the late senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, another advocate:

"The air that we breathe with respect to those issues has been changed because of Patrick Kennedy -- not his family, but him."

* * *

By leaving politics, Kennedy is free to discover who he is and what his place is in this world.

"We grew up in a family where there was very little tolerance for self-exploration," says a cousin, Christopher Kennedy Lawford. "I think now he has this freedom . . . to do some real exploration of who he is and what he wants to do in his lifetime. That's a valiant exploration, and a needed one.

"Gandhi," he adds, "said the man who conquers himself is greater than the man who conquers 10,000 armies."

Patrick Joseph Kennedy II was 2 when his father drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Mass., and the young woman traveling in that car drowned. He was 6 when his big brother, Ted Jr., had part of his leg amputated because of bone cancer. He was 11 when his parents separated; his mother, Joan, was a chronic alcoholic, she acknowledged.

As a child, Patrick Kennedy suffered asthma attacks at night, and it was his father, friends say, who rushed him to the hospital and learned to give him injections. A poster of a grumpy nurse with a gigantic needle signed "To Dad, my night nurse. Love, Patrick" hung on the wall of Ted Kennedy's private Senate office for years.

Kennedy says he contemplated his decision to give up his House seat for a year. He didn't immediately confide in his dad, the man he calls his closest confidant and political guide. Then, last summer, his father asked Patrick to clear his schedule. Ted Kennedy was dying, and he wanted his youngest to join siblings Ted Jr. and Kara at Hyannis Port, Mass.

"That was the nicest thing he's ever done for me," Patrick Kennedy says.

Those weeks opened his eyes to the fact that his father enjoyed being surrounded by loved ones -- and the reality that Patrick sometimes feels alone.

"That really was what sustained him the most," says Kennedy, who now wants to settle down, marry and have children. He has grown closer to his siblings but not his father's second wife, Vicki. "She's really not much a part of my life," he says.

Over those final weeks with his father, Kennedy broached his retirement from the House. He says his dad encouraged him to do what would make him happy, telling him that there are other avenues in which to make a difference -- pointing to the legacy of Patrick's aunt Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics -- and assuring him that he would love him regardless.

Kennedy never knew Washington without his dad, and those close to him say he has felt alone in Congress after his death.

"He felt lonely without him, but he would never say it," Lawford says. "That's not how we were brought up. You don't reveal that stuff. It's an Irish thing. Irish are enormously sentimental, but they're also very stoic."

* * *

One day, during the reporting of this article, Kennedy's famous cousins started calling, unsolicited, to offer their support.

"Losing a parent causes you to reflect on your own life and what's important to you, and that's part of the process he's going through," Caroline Kennedy says. "It's a great new beginning for Patrick, and I think it took some courage to make this decision."

Maria Shriver says: "You never know when the right time is to do something like that. I'm a big believer that if that's what you want to do, having the guts to do it is really admirable."

It is a sign of Patrick Kennedy's liberation that his past scandals are now sources of his own amusement, even in front of his constituents. One Friday night in February, he flew home to Rhode Island to roast himself at a banquet. He delivered a Top 10 list, a la David Letterman, of the reasons he is leaving office.

"Toyota has hired me as their consultant," he deadpanned. "I'm not sure why, because I couldn't seem to get my car to stop, either."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company