Is the Kennedy Mystique in danger of becoming the Kennedy Mistake?
"Whatever magic there was about the Kennedy era has dissipated. No question about it," says Paul Henggeler, a history professor at the University of Texas-Pan American and author of "The Kennedy Persuasion: The Politics of Style Since JFK."
In the wake of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's resounding defeat Tuesday in Maryland, Henggeler and other pol watchers are contemplating the coming and going of Camelot.
Referring to the mystique, Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, says the Kennedys "had a big role in throwing it all away."
He says, "They are viewed generally as being so far to the left, and so arrogant to boot, that they would be better off skipping a generation. I'm serious. Let the grandkids and great-grandkids run for office."
It has been a tough couple of years on the politically inclined Kennedy clan. Townsend's brother Max dropped out of a congressional race in Massachusetts. Her first cousin Mark Shriver was defeated in a congressional primary in September. Her brother-in-law Andrew Cuomo bowed out of the New York governor's race. And Townsend herself was drubbed by Robert Ehrlich, a come-from-behind Republican, in a deeply Democratic state.
There was a time in American history -- after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and his brother Robert in 1968 -- that the Kennedy name was golden. When the Kennedy Mystique was in full force, it was positively pheromonal -- atomizing relatives, in-laws, friends, even look-alikes with the power-filled fairy sparkles of political success.
Good looks, a quick mind, an insatiable appetite for life and the ability to move mankind -- these were the characteristics of the Kennedy magic.
"People looked for a Kennedy anywhere," Henggeler says, "and sometimes found them in desperate ways."
Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis and even Geraldine Ferraro rose to national prominence, Henggeler says, because they were Kennedy kinda-likes. "Ronald Reagan tapped into John Kennedy's speeches," Henggeler says. People yearned to find the Inner Kennedy in their nation's leaders.
"Now we're dealing with a whole generation of voters who didn't know John and Robert Kennedy," says Henggeler, who keeps a poster of Robert Kennedy on his wall at the college. Students come in, Henggeler says, and "they have no clue who Robert Kennedy is. How much mystique can the Kennedys have for these people?"
Bill Clinton was perhaps the last of the old-style Kennedy kinda-likes. He grabbed onto the legacy like a life preserver. Remember that ad nauseam photo of the young and self-satisfied Arkansan shaking hands with President Kennedy?
Ultimately, even Clinton's hubristic downfall smacked of Camelot. "That failure of character was Kennedyesque in its own way," Henggeler says.
Whole industries have risen up around the Kennedy Mystique. Magazines, books and biopics have explored the glory and the gore associated with the famous family from Massachusetts.
Joseph and Rose Kennedy had nine children -- including Jack, Bobby, Eunice, Jean and Teddy -- and scads of grandchildren. Some of the progeny teamed up with other politicians, creating an ever-expanding empire. Eunice, for instance, married Sargent Shriver, who ran for vice president with George McGovern in 1972 and lost.
In the Era of the Aura, we were introduced to Jack's extraordinary leadership skills and well-crafted speeches, painting politics as public service and an honorable pursuit.
When he was assassinated, we watched as his widow and children carried on stoically as if the republic depended on them.
Then Bobby was killed and, for the next couple of generations, we asked the wistful question: What if? That became the mantra of the mystique.
One answer perhaps was Teddy, who has lived long enough for the nation to see a Kennedy at his best and at his worst. Ted Kennedy has served in the Senate for 40 years. In 1969 he was involved in a mystique-marring scandal when his car crashed and his campaign aide Mary Jo Kopechne drowned at Chappaquiddick.
The next generation of Kennedys has also had its triumphs and tragedies. Joe Kennedy II, Bobby's son, served in the House of Representatives, but his aspirations to be the governor of Massachusetts were squelched after his former wife wrote a book addressing their marital problems.
Ted's son Patrick represents a Rhode Island district in the House. He has served there since 1994.
Jack's son, John Jr., was killed in a plane crash in 1999. There was talk that John Jr. planned to run for the Senate.
Jean's son William Kennedy Smith was accused -- and acquitted -- of rape in 1991.
Other Kennedy children have performed public service admirably. And there have been countless dramatic episodes in the Kennedy soap opera -- on the political field and off.
Being a Kennedy these days may be more of a political burden than a boon. The family has changed. So has the country.
The most popular man in America is George W. Bush. "He is the antithesis of the Kennedy image," says Henggeler. He's not verbally adroit. He is not particularly telegenic. He presents himself as the common man.
Meanwhile, the Kennedys have become celebrities.
"The Kennedys have long been equated with British royalty," says Sabato. And as with the Brits, he says, there is the nagging national suspicion that the younger offspring are just not very bright and that their power is inherited, not earned.
Townsend, he says, is not completely responsible for losing the election. "The number one, number two and number three reasons why she lost was Parris Glendening," Sabato says, referring to the governor who picked Townsend to be his lieutenant governor. "He is as unpopular as any Democratic candidate I've ever encountered."
There is hope, however, Sabato says, that the once-and-future Kennedy Mystique may still be out there.
Eunice's daughter, Maria, is not a politician. She is a journalist. But she married a man who has been touched by the Kennedy magic. They live in California.
Using his personal fortune, he persuaded legislators to tack a proposition onto Tuesday's statewide ballot, setting aside a half-billion dollars for after-school programs. The proposition passed overwhelmingly.
At 55, he has hinted that he might run for governor in the future, and with the success of his legislative initiative, he just might win.
He has those Kennedyesque good looks, a quick wit, an insatiable appetite for life and the ability to move mankind.
The Kennedy Mystique just may be reemerging, Sabato says, in the shape-shifted form of a Republican: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"Maybe the best thing to do," Sabato says, "is be a Republican and marry into the Kennedy family."