RFK's Daughter Kathleen Runs for Congress, Changing the Kennedys' Male Order Politics

updated 02/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Dear Kathleen,
As the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren, you have a particular responsibility to John and Joe. Be kind to others and work for your country.
Love, Daddy

That letter from Robert F. Kennedy to his daughter was written on the day John F. Kennedy was buried, two decades after the eldest Kennedy son, Joe, was killed in World War II. Kathleen was 12 years old then, a mischievous tomboy attending an exclusive Catholic girls' school. She grew up, as children do, in her own way, and in some ways not like a Kennedy at all. A student activist at Harvard during the Vietnam war years, she marched on Washington, worked for McGovern in 72, became a devout feminist (her idol was the renowned anarchist Emma Goldman) and hitchhiked alone through Greece. One summer she floated 500 miles down the Mississippi on a raft she built with friends. She married one of them, a doctoral student in English named David Townsend; he made her gold wedding ring himself. She followed him to New Mexico, where he was teaching, went to law school, and had a daughter by natural childbirth at home. Following a local custom, they buried the placenta of their firstborn, Meaghan, and planted a tree over it. David delivered the second child, Maeve (no local doctor would agree to attend a home birth); he prepared by reading a police manual. "I had to chew through the [amniotic] sac," he said, "or she would have drowned."

This is—need it be said?—a new generation of Kennedys, in which, however much may seem to change, certain things do not: On Jan. 31, with the blessings of her mother, Ethel, and Uncle Ted, Kathleen Kennedy Town-send, 34, announced her candidacy for Congress from Maryland's second district—and thus became the first Kennedy woman to stand for public office. In doing so she put herself in a race with brother Joe, 33 (RFK's eldest son), to be the first Kennedy of their generation to go to Congress. He is running for the Massachusetts congressional seat once held by JFK and soon to be vacated by retiring House Speaker Tip O'Neill. That familial contest doesn't worry her and neither does the congressional race. "I never think about losing," she says. "I intend to win."

On a recent Sunday Townsend made her pitch to members of the all-male County Seal Democratic Club. Standing at the head of the table in Anderson's Lounge outside Baltimore, Townsend, in her flame-red blazer and gray skirt, looked a bit like a schoolkid as she addressed the assemblage of seasoned politicians, and her voice quavered as she began to explain why she is running. But her message, and the way she chopped the air with her hands as she spoke, evoked just the right memories: "I was brought up to believe that we should work hard for our family, our community and our country and that we should take every opportunity to serve."

Wisely, she stressed "family roots" throughout the speech—not hers, she made perfectly clear, but her husband's: David's father had been a local elementary schoolteacher and principal for 40 years, and her mother-in-law was a public school secretary. Kathleen and David moved to Baltimore only 18 months ago from Massachusetts, where she had worked in state government and directed Uncle Ted's 1982 Senate reelection campaign. (David stayed home with the kids and worked on a novel.) Almost as soon as the Townsends moved into their 70-year-old, 11-room Victorian house in Ruxton, Md., a wooded, upscale suburb of Baltimore, there was speculation that she was planning a run for office, and Republicans lost no time tagging her a carpetbagger. But Town-send insists that she and her husband decided to move back to Maryland because David was offered a position teaching the Great Books Program at St. John's College in Annapolis. "We certainly did not move back here with the idea of my running for Congress," she says. "The children's grandparents are here, and David was raised just a few miles from here. We wanted to be close to both our families."

Kathleen would rather not talk about her own family at all. Ask any personal question about her father, or Ted, or JFK, or the stories circulating about problems among the peers of her clan, and she says, "No, no, I'm just not going to get into that." She prefers to discuss the issues pivotal to her campaign: pollution, toxic waste dumps and the loss of blue-collar jobs in her district. She is less than specific about her solutions to such problems, preferring to stick to stirring slogans, such as the need to change "the politics of selfishness into the politics of possibility."

To judge by the light applause her speech won from the men of the County Seal Democratic Club, her message may need some sharpening. But when she finished, the four club members who are delegates to the state assembly rose one by one to endorse her candidacy. "Kathy, I believe in you," said Louis DePazzo. "You have humility, understanding—and good stock." Later, as Townsend worked the room, shaking every outstretched hand, each conversation was the same—a little small talk and then the reminiscence: "I worked in your uncle's campaign and I met your father once when he came through Baltimore."

Townsend is considered a shoo-in for her party's nomination, but the general election is a different story. The Democratic candidate will be facing a popular one-term Republican incumbent, Helen Delich Bentley, a streetwise former newspaper reporter. "I am running on my own name and what I have done," says Bentley pointedly. Kathleen Townsend (her official résumé omits her maiden name) would clearly like to say the same, but a Kennedy by any other name is still a Kennedy.

Was it difficult to be raised in America's most famous political clan? "That's the way I grew up so I don't know any other way," she says. "It's not something to complain about."

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