When John Kennedy left for New Hampshire on the first day of his presidential campaign, 20 reporters traveled with him. Last week, Ted Kennedy announced his candidacy and immediately moved into New Hampshire, four presses buses accompanied him. By the time we reached Chicago, by way of Maine, much later that night the journalistic entourage had grown even greater. It was as close to a presidential caravan as a candidate is ever likely to have.
For more than a generation the Kennedys have attraced -- and courted -- the most intensive press attention. No family in American history has been the subject of such massive coverage. None has understood better the uses to which the media can be put. And none has benefited more from favorable treatment by the press.
John Kennedy's presidency was chronicled by a generally supportive and at times adulatory press corps. Robert Kennedy's candidacy was made instant legend, celebrated in story and pictures, told and retold as a mythic act.
A journalist, Theodore White, gave first public expression to, if not created, the idea of Camelot, that "one brief shining moment" taken from the romantic play based on the ancient myth and then applied to real life in Washington with the Kennedys. After the terrible political year of 1968, White dedicated his next book to the murdered brothers in the words of David's biblical lament: "Saul and Jonathan, sweet and beloved in their lives; nor in their death were they divided; swifter were they than eagles, braver than lions . . ."
Some of the leading jounalists of the time were close to the Kennedys, and remain active today. On The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, the executive editor, was a friend and neighbor of John Kennedy's and later described that relationship in his book, "Conversations With Kennedy." Richard Harwood, now deputy managing editor, asked to be relieved from covering Robert Kennedy after the fateful California primary because he had become so drawn to Kennedy that he felt he no longer could write with any detachment about him; but Harwood stayed through that final night, and planned to attend a private victory party with Kennedy and other journalists. Instead, he knelt over Kennedy's body in the hotel kitchen after the candidate had been shot in the head.
Many of the journalists who covered that last Kennedy campaign formed a memorial association to honor his efforts on behalf of America's disadvantaged and impoverished. Annual Prizes are given to other journalists from around the nation for distinquished work in the spirit of Robert Kennedy. The first event in the then officially unopened Kennedy Center was a luncheon group of jounalists attending a Robert Kennedy function who heard Tom Wicker of The New York Times speak. Some of the best known journalists who report on national politics have served on that Kennedy committee, and among the chairmen have been Harwood of The Post, Jules Witcover of The Washington Star, Jack Rosenthal of The New York Times, Roger Mudd of CBS, Bob Clark of ABC, Jack Nelson of The Los Angeles Times and myself.
The question today as another Kennedy presidential campaign begins is whether those of us who wrote about the Kennedys so often, followed them so closely, and felt we knew thenm are capable of fairly covering this intensely personal contest.
Two days before leaving for Boston to report Ted Kennedy's presidential announcement, I visited Arlington Cemetery. Years had passed since I'd been there and, I suppose, consciously or otherwise I had not wanted to go back: I was present when both Kennedys were buried, and was curious to find what emotions were stirred now, in such different circumstances and times.
I was much younger than Jack Kennedy and never among those close to him, but I knew Bob Kennedy well, and was among those with him who wept when he was killed. Seeing the graves, though, provided no answers to the question: they were reminders of tragedies past, patches of green for the tourists, the curious, the remaining faithful to gaze on and forget. They certainly don't resolve anything about Ted Kennedy and the present.
No presidential candidate today, and no chief executive for that matter, will enjoy the kind of uncritical press attention of the past. Kennedy, in particular, is being examined more intimately and aggressively than any candidate before him -- and for reasons that go beyond his public record and private problems.
Younger journalists, schooled in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era of hard-nosed and hard-eyed reporting and questioning, already are picking him apart. ("Senator Kennedy, you cheated in college, you panicked at Chappaquiddick," said ABC's Tom Jarriel, opening a recent interview. "Do you have what it takes to be president of the United States?") Older ones, aware of the past and anxious to demonstrate their journalistic independence and integrity, are also coming on hard -- as Roger Mudd's superb Kennedy interview proved last Sunday.
Ironically, Kennedy faces the prospect of unremittingly being taken over the same ground repeatedly at the expense of having other substantive questions about him examined. In a way, he now bears the burden of his brothers' legacies of courting the press and being celebrated by it.
For the press, its burden is to free itself of both its fascination for and admiration of Kennedys past and yet not atone for any sins of other days with undue harshness -- to treat him, fairly and critically, as his own man, not his brothers' brother, flawed controversial, fumbling, promising, whatever, seeking the presidency today just like all the rest.
The public, suspicious of past press-Kennedy relationships, properly wants to be assured it's getting the Ted Kennedy news straight, and surely will be wary. All of which will be one of the most difficult aspects of this campaign.