He's Running Uncle Teddy's Iowa Fight, but Joe Kennedy II Wants to Be More Than Just a Sequel

updated 01/21/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/21/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

With his blond hair in uncontrollable frenzy and his electric grin on high beam, young Joe Kennedy shambled through a klatch of elder citizens at a community center near Des Moines. "Hi, you gonna help my Uncle Ted?" he asked of one white-haired woman. She fixed him with a worried gaze and answered: "The Kennedys have sacrificed an awful lot for this country. Maybe it's best that Ted shouldn't do this." Not missing a beat, young Joe shot back: "It's his decision. Now you help him out." The old woman began to cross herself. "Well, you say a prayer for him then," Kennedy mumbled nervously and headed for the door.

His is a poise not often shattered, but the bittersweet legacy of the Kennedy family falls nowhere more heavily than on Joseph Patrick Kennedy II. More than any of his siblings or cousins, Robert's eldest son carries the family banner. His mother, Ethel, his aunts and his Uncle Ted have vested political hope in him for years, though he is only 27. Already he has made feints at several public offices, including a congressional seat. Already his life has been threatened. Being a Kennedy "certainly opened doors," as he once put it, "but it opened some I didn't want to walk through."

Now Ted has given him his first national political responsibility—as the candidate's surrogate and chief operative in the crucial state of Iowa, where Democrats will caucus next week to select delegates for the 1980 convention. The job is a pressure cooker: Kennedy's showing in the caucuses is crucial, the polls portend a dead heat, and Joe's task is to get out the vote. This he has tried diligently to do, hitting six to 10 smoke-filled rooms and "coffees" a day for 10 straight weeks. Yet his youth has shown through stubbornly—in his morning devotional with the Boston teams' results on the sports pages, in his sacrosanct afternoon workout at a local gym and in his request of one hostess for a second glass of milk and an aspirin in the late evening of a long, speechifying day. In Iowa Joe is more immersed in politics than he has ever been before, and he is not wholly pleased about it. "I like meeting people," he says, "but I don't live for campaigns."

Joe Kennedy's future in public life is suggested more by his genes than his record. After two prep schools and three colleges, he finally received his B.A. from the University of Massachusetts at the age of 23. Along the way, he gained a reputation as a daredevil—fighting bulls in Seville, shooting rapids in Utah, chasing antelope while with the Peace Corps in Kenya. In 1973 his luck turned bad: An auto accident in Nantucket left friend Pamela Kelly, the 18-year-old daughter of a Cape Cod bartender, paralyzed from the waist down. "The accident really catalyzed him into manhood," a friend reports. "It made him realize there was no way he could escape being Robert Kennedy's son, that he just had to make the most of the fact."

Buckling down, Joe managed Ted's 1976 reelection campaign and rumors floated of a run for the state treasurer's job. The thought was laughed off—"preposterous and insulting," jeered a Harvard professor—and Joe retreated to a federal government job in Washington. Last year he married Philadelphia debutante Sheila Rauch, an urban planner (with a Harvard M.A.), and settled into a modest home in a working-class section of Boston. (She is an Episcopalian but reportedly agreed to raise any children as Catholics.) Since then Sheila, 30, has proved a Kennedy trouper—recruiting campaign volunteers on college campuses and stumping with Joe in Iowa—and her husband seems genuinely awed by her. "I have to ask her to explain half the positions," he says. "She's smarter and harder-working than I am."

That self-effacement seems as genuine as his doubts about the political life. "I really enjoy being at home, doing something I feel is important," he says. That "something" for the moment is a nonprofit corporation he has founded to try to "lower low-income people's fuel bills." He feels strongly about the liberal causes his uncle—like his father—has espoused. "There is an attitude in my family," as he puts it, "that the rules should be fair for everyone and that they aren't. There's nothing wrong with working to change that." But whether his vocation is political life is a question Sheila, for one, wants him to answer by himself. "If he really wants to run for office, okay," she says. "If he thinks someone else wants him to, not so okay."

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