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Camelot's Future: The Kennedy Generations

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  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, July 25, 1999; Page A1

    Where do the Kennedys go from here?

    The answer depends greatly on one's sense of what the Kennedys represent. To many, the family stands primarily for that vague but powerful mix of youth, star quality and idealism that comprises the Camelot myth. In this regard, the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. has dealt a lasting blow. Even friends of the family agree there is no one in his generation who comes close to him in the charisma department.

    But those who think of the family mainly as a political dynasty will find a different answer. The 26 surviving grandchildren of Joe and Rose Kennedy are involved in politics some as candidates, many more as activists and advocates all across the country. It is possible that John, with his mystique and popularity, would have had the easiest shot at high office. But there are others in the family whose chances are likely to come.

    As individuals, none seems likely to grip the public imagination as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and, even more intensely, his older brothers have. But Robert F. Kennedy's daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is aiming at the governor's mansion in Maryland, and her brother may be weighing a run for governor of New York.

    Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, deeply involved in the effort to regain control of the House of Representatives. Mark Shriver is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. Other family members have discussed possible political futures in Florida and Illinois.

    "I think the other members of the generation who might be interested in politics clearly won't have the enormous boost that John would have had because of his place in the public memory," said historian Michael Beschloss, who has written extensively on the Kennedys. "The obverse is true. Had John Kennedy Jr. lived and run for office, he would have had an enormous boost but would have been under great pressure to prove himself.

    "In ways, perhaps it makes the Kennedys a more normal political family."

    There is, understandably, less consistency of personality and world view in the third generation than in the second. Those legendary Kennedys of the 1960s John, Robert, Ted, Eunice, Jean, Patricia grew up under the same roof, ate at the same table and learned from the same parents and family retainers.

    But as they married and went on to raise their own families, more variety crept into the family line. For example, while it's generally true that Kennedys value competition above most everything else, that is less the case, according to family friends, with the four children of Jean Kennedy and the late Stephen E. Smith, who with the exception of William Kennedy Smith, 39 who was acquitted on rape charges have largely stayed out of the public eye. The same largely goes for the children of Patricia Kennedy and the late actor Peter Lawford.

    On the other hand, the nine surviving children of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and his wife Ethel are pure and classic Kennedy public, physical, political. More than the others, this branch of the family contains both the bright and blighted aspects of the Kennedy story. While some in the family are successful in politics, business and other endeavors 30-year-old Rory is a documentary filmmaker two brothers, David and Michael, are dead, the first of a heroin overdose in 1984, the second in a 1997 skiing accident.

    Kathleen Townsend is the oldest member of the generation, born in 1951. It is possible that she will become the dominant figure in a family that has until now been dominated by men.

    Married to an unassuming college professor, mother of four daughters, Townsend is the increasingly popular lieutenant governor of Maryland and appears poised to succeed Gov. Parris N. Glendening when he steps down in three years.

    She is not a natural pol not in the easy, graceful way of her uncle and cousin, the two John F. Kennedys. She lost her first race, for Congress in 1986, and was universally judged a weak public speaker during her first campaign with Glendening in 1994.

    But she has pursued popular issues straight from President Clinton's "New Democrat" playbook: crime prevention, community policing, volunteerism, economic development. She is a Kennedy who favors the death penalty. At the same time, Townsend has consulted speech coaches to work on her technique. Though the election is more than three years away, she has made herself a strong contender to be governor. Some 3,000 people recently turned out for a fund-raiser in honor of her birthday.

    She is also a force inside the family. "She's the oldest, which gives her a special place in the family," said one close associate. "I think in many ways she serves as the memory of the family. So many of the generation were literally babies and young children when her father and her uncle died. She is a link to them."

    Next oldest is Joseph P. Kennedy II, 46, whose political star was rising until three years ago. After 10 years in Congress, he was planning to run for governor of Massachusetts. But then a scandal involving his brother and campaign manager, the late Michael Kennedy compounded by bad publicity involving Joe's first marriage drove him from the race.

    He now works at Citizens Energy, a nonprofit he founded years ago to provide cheap heating oil to poor people around Boston. A number of family friends say he seems happier than he has in years, and predict he will not return to public office.

    But there are suggestions among liberal Democrats it is a fervent desire that his brother Robert F. Kennedy Jr., 45, might become a candidate. The environmental lawyer from the Hudson River Valley has some of the electricity of his martyred father, and has said in the past that he could be interested in being governor of New York. According to one Kennedy insider, leading Democrats unsuccessfully approached RFK Jr. to run for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).

    It is commonly said of the Kennedys that they owe all their opportunities to campaign and to crusade to the vast pile of money accumulated by their grandfather. The fortune is managed in an intricate web of trusts and foundations, and as the family expanded there was some concern that the slices of the pie might become rather thin, by Kennedy standards.

    This is what makes Christopher Kennedy, the fifth of seven RFK sons, increasingly important inside the family. He is the first serious businessman in the bloodline since grandpa, a source of hope for expanding the pie. Chris, 36, helped strike a deal last year to sell the heart of the Kennedy fortune the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, along with some other real estate for $625 million, and he continues to manage the Mart while pondering possible development schemes for a prime piece of Chicago land the family still owns.

    "He is the problem-solver," said one family friend. And he has been mentioned as a potential candidate in Illinois.

    Perhaps the most concentrated commitment to social issues is found in the family of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her husband, R. Sargent. Eunice founded the Special Olympics in 1968, and the family has built it into a global cause.

    Thirty-nine-year-old Tim Shriver known as The Priest among his cousins as he was growing up, on account of his piety is now the director of the Special Olympics, and his older brother Bobby, 45, who is in the film business, raises money for the charity. Younger brother Anthony, 34, created a related charity called Best Buddies, to encourage students to work with mentally retarded kids.

    The Shrivers also feed the family output of stars and pols. Maria Shriver, 43, with her gig at NBC News and her marriage to Arnold Schwarzenegger, is now probably the shiniest member of the family. Mark Shriver, 35, a businessman and Maryland legislator, has his eye on Congress. And Anthony recently considered making a run for mayor of Miami Beach.

    The senator's children are in the same lines of work: Kara Kennedy Allen, 39, works for Very Special Arts, a creative counterpart to Special Olympics founded by her aunt Jean; Edward M. Kennedy Jr., 37, has started a nonprofit to move poor people in Connecticut out of homes contaminated by lead.

    And Patrick, 32, is in Congress, raising record sums for House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt's campaign to win a majority next year. Intensely partisan, Patrick Kennedy passed up a chance to run for the seat of retiring Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) to stay on Gephardt's team. This is likely to mean he will stay in the House for the foreseeable future.

    Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, 41, is now the sole survivor of the Kennedy family that once lived in the White House. Author of two books, mother of three children, wife of an artist, she lives a comparatively quiet life in New York. She is only rarely a public Kennedy generally at events related to her father's presidential library. Beyond that, she seems to want no part of the family enterprise.

    So it is that America's Kennedy cult may have to live without a giant, settling instead for a lot of mere mortals, spread far beyond the ancestral fiefs in Massachusetts and New York. "Vote for the Kennedy Nearest You," said a recent bumper sticker.

    But for those who insist on continuing the search for a Kennedy who'll dazzle as Jack, Jackie and Bobby dazzled consider this: The fourth generation numbers over 50, with more to come.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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