A Kennedy's Last Hurrah?
Yet lately the eldest son of Robert F. Kennedy has seen his life veer distressingly off course. So it came as less than a shock when he announced on March 13 that he would not seek a seventh term in Congress this fall, thus becoming the first member of the Kennedy clan to leave elective office voluntarily. Asked why he was abandoning the seat from Massachusetts's 8th District, once held by his uncle John F. Kennedy, the congressman, 45, told reporters, "I think that what's happened in this last year is sort of self-explanatory."
Indeed, even by Kennedy family standards, 1997 was a rough ride for the congressman. Last March, his ex-wife Sheila Rauch Kennedy, mother of his two teenage sons, claimed in her much-publicized book Shattered Faith that Joe had tried to bully her into granting him an annulment of their 12-year marriage so he could remarry in the Catholic Church. (In 1993, he married his former personal secretary, Beth Kelly, in a civil ceremony.) Then, in April, came further embarrassment: the revelation that his brother Michael had had an affair with a teenager who was Michael's children's babysitter. Any mud on his younger brother was bound to spatter Joe—Michael had served as his campaign manager and headed Citizens Energy Corp., founded by Joe in 1979 to offer low-cost heating oil to the poor and now a $32 million conglomerate.
Though Joe publicly apologized for both his and his brother's indiscretions, polls showed his popularity plunging. "The press wouldn't let him talk about anything but his divorce and his brother," says friend and fellow Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank.
In August, not long after John F. Kennedy Jr., in an editor's letter in George magazine, described his cousins, both unnamed, as "poster boys for bad behavior," Joe held a finger to the gale-force political winds and announced he was scrapping plans for a 1998 run for the Massachusetts governorship. Then a year that looked as if it couldn't get any worse did—when a shocking New Year's Eve ski accident cost Michael his life.
"This last year has brought me a new recognition of our own individual vulnerabilities and the vagaries of life," said Kennedy, announcing his intended departure from Congress. He said he would focus his energies on his 17-year-old twins, Matt and Joe ("I have two sons that are cocaptains of a football team next year," he said, "and I look forward to trying to make every one of their games"), and on Michael's three kids, ages 10 through 15. "These are children who are without a father," Joe's longtime friend Phil Johnston says of Michael's son and two daughters. "Any brother would want to do what he is doing."
Kennedy's zeal for national politics had been flagging since 1994, when the Republicans took control of the House, greatly diminishing his role. "He seemed to be moving through Congress more out of a sense of obligation than joy," says a veteran Washington political observer. Tim Russert of NBC's Meet the Press told The Boston Globe's Mike Barnicle of a conversation last summer on Cape Cod in which Kennedy gave dull, perfunctory answers about politics but then grew animated when asked for tips about catching fish. "I can remember thinking, 'This is a guy who doesn't like what he's doing,' " said Russert. " 'He wants to go fishing.' "
The chairman's post at Citizens Energy may come with as much as $650,000 in executive compensation (Michael's earnings in one recent year), a step-up from Kennedy's $136,700 congressman's salary. Though he won 84 percent of his district's vote in 1996 and could likely have held the seat for years to come, Kennedy apparently grew weary of the plodding pace of congressional politics. Still, friends say Kennedy isn't likely to leave politics for good. "He has public service in his heart, just like his father did," says Kennedy cousin Joseph Gargan. "I'm sure he'll take another look at his political future and run for something again." Should that day come, Kennedy's sabbatical probably won't have hurt him. "Here's a guy who's willing to leave a safe congressional seat to be attentive to his family," says his friend Johnston. "I think voters are going to be very respectful of that."
MARK DAGOSTINO in Boston and JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington