Kennedys 4.0: The Dynasty Endures
By Eve Zibart
No political clan ever has gripped the American imagination like the Kennedys have. The premier political band of brothers, John, Robert, and Edward—universally known as Jack, Bobby, and Ted—wielded privilege and power, creating a political cult of personality that few candidates have been able to equal in modern American history. They were the first made-for-TV politicians—and with their continual riptide of trouble and tragedy, they also might be called the first tabloid dynasty. More than 30 years before candidate Bill Clinton played sax on The Arsenio Hall Show, JFK bantered on The Jack Paar Tonight Show. If there had been social media 60 years ago, the Kennedys would have been "liked" by millions.
And their images seem indelible. Award-winning author and journalist Richard Reeves, who has written two books on the Kennedy administration, calls those in the Camelot generation, especially JFK, "enduring cultural figures... Not quite Lincoln, but more than Sinatra." Most Americans can’t remember a time, going back to 1946, when there wasn’t at least one Kennedy in Congress; sometimes there were three. But the political waters have grown choppier in recent years. No new Kennedy has been elected to Congress since 1995; one tried and failed, and at least one other backed out. While the family remains hugely influential, especially when it comes to fundraising, most family members have chosen public service in the private sector rather than the political arena. So it was inevitable that when Joseph Kennedy III announced in February that he would be running for Barney Frank’s Congressional seat, the sound bites would fly: Is the Kennedy name still magic? Is Joe III the clan’s comeback kid? And might he and his generation—which was being called "Kennedy 4.0" even before Joe 4.0—be the fresh new faces of the longest-running political dynasty in American history?
"There’s no question that [the Kennedy name] remains a major advantage," says columnist and PBS commentator Mark Shields, who worked on campaigns for both RFK and Sargent Shriver. "It ensures a long list of supporters and admirers. But now it’s more of an introductory credential; after that it’s a question of the individual candidate. By all accounts, young Joe is quite appealing and personable—he’d probably be a good candidate if his name were Joe Kelly or Joe Goldberg."
Certainly the love affair with the JFK-era Kennedys shows no sign of cooling. Celebrity biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli published After Camelot, his second Kennedy book, in April. In May, Columbia University professor Alan Brinkley released his John F. Kennedy from the American Presidents series, and former Boston Globe journalist Tina Cassidy published Jackie After O. TV pundit Chris Matthews’ Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero came out in November; Bill O’Reilly is set to weigh in on JFK’s assassination this fall. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s 1964 taped interviews with Jackie Kennedy were published in September 2011, and like Matthews’ book became a best seller. Mark Kennedy Shriver’s affectionate memoir of his father, Sargent Shriver, A Good Man, has a June publication date.
"It’s a cultural phenomenon that, frankly, I would have expected to die out years ago," says journalist Laurence Leamer, whose trilogy of best-selling studies of the Kennedy family (The Kennedy Women, The Kennedy Men, and Sons of Camelot) reflects a somewhat darker view of the legacy.
In fact, just since 2010, more than a dozen Kennedy books have made headlines, most focused on Jack and Jackie (plus three about John Kennedy Jr.). The authors range from journalists to self-described former lovers and Secret Service agents—his and hers.
But with the possible exception of Taraborrelli’s book, accounts of the children of the JFK-era Kennedys are footnotes in the best-seller lists. Leamer believes they lack the proverbial "fire in the belly," and also criticizes what he sees as a political and personal network that has protected the younger generations from harsh political reality, not always to their advantage. But most are on the cusp of adulthood and just now emerging on the national scene.
The same year that Mark Kennedy Shriver lost his congressional race, his cousin, Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, eldest daughter of Robert Kennedy, failed in her attempt to become governor. Leamer also points to Caroline Kennedy’s unsteady bid for the New York Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton in 2008. (He has said that she found the media spotlight "brutal.") Even more intriguing, Leamer says Caroline’s brother, the late John F. Kennedy Jr.— the one forever captured saluting his father’s coffin—would have run for that same Senate seat in 1999 but backed off when Clinton announced her interest. "He’d had polls done showing he was leading her, but he just didn’t have the desire," Leamer offers.
There are plenty of reasons the Kennedys would shun the spotlight. "There’s not a lot of joy in politics these days," Shields points out. "When is the last time you heard somebody say politics is an honorable profession or a high calling? Nowadays what you hear is that public office is a terrible burden, that politicians aren’t admired or respected."
Too many family members have seen the downsides of celebrity, and not only because of the successive assassinations of Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Two of JFK’s siblings, his older brother Joe and his sister Kathleen, died in plane crashes, and Teddy nearly did—but that didn’t stop John F. Kennedy Jr. from flying his own plane into a storm. The family currently is mourning the recent suicide of RFK Jr.’s ex-wife, Mary Richardson Kennedy. And several family members have struggled with issues of addiction and domestic turmoil.
But perhaps it’s simply that the younger Kennedys have turned their famous faces in another direction. Whether or not they inherited the appetite for rough-and-tumble politicking from their parents—not to mention their grandfather, FDR confidant Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, and their great-grandparents, Massachusetts pols P.J. Kennedy and three-time Boston mayor John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald—an impressive number of Kennedy cousins have chosen to use their connections to further charitable causes.
The phrase "of those to whom much is given, much is required," a passage from the Gospel of Luke, has long been the family motto. JFK used it in a speech to the Massachusetts legislature; Senator Edward Kennedy said his mother, Rose, instilled that principle in her children as "an enduring sort of challenge for all our lives." Mark Shriver writes that he can’t remember when he learned it; it was "just always there in my memory." Maeve Townsend quoted it when her great-uncle Ted Kennedy died.
Even a partial list of Kennedy causes, most having to do with the disabled or disadvantaged, is impressive. Mark Shriver’s brother Timothy is the chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics, which was founded by their mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. (At Eunice’s funeral, Robert Kennedy Jr. called her fight for the rights of the mentally disabled another civil rights issue.) Brother Robert Sargent Shriver III was one of the cofounders of DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) along with U2 front man Bono; they also cofounded the popular (Product) Red campaign. (Bono and Stevie Wonder performed at Sargent Shriver’s funeral.) Another brother, Anthony Kennedy Shriver, started Best Buddies International. Since leaving office, Mark Shriver has joined Save the Children as senior vice president of US programs. Several younger Kennedys, including Maeve Townsend, Teddy Shriver, and candidate Joe III himself, have tithed their public service with stints in the Peace Corps, just one of the important agencies built by Eunice’s husband, Sargent Shriver. Former First Lady of California Maria Shriver is active in women’s networking and Alzheimer’s research. (PBS’s Shields calls the Shrivers "remarkable—funny, quick, unpretentious, and irreverent in the best sense. I like and admire all of them.")
Robert Kennedy Jr. has been chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper since 1984. Joe Kennedy II founded Citizens Energy Corporation, which, as its TV ads emphasize, assists low-income families in getting heating fuel. Emmy-winning filmmaker Rory Kennedy has turned her lens on AIDS, rural poverty, Abu Ghraib, and nuclear power. Kerry Kennedy is chair of Amnesty International’s USA Leadership Council.
And that gene is still running true. Thomas Maier, author of The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings, says, "It’s striking that the fifth [by Boston standards] generation of Kennedys still has a sense of public service and commitment to the environment, the handicapped, and other social justice issues, which is quite remarkable compared to most other Americans. It’s a legacy that they still admire and uphold."
The price of that commitment is often the glare of the public spotlight. But the youngest members of the clan have been willing to tiptoe into it. Maria Shriver’s eldest daughter, Katherine Schwarzenegger, published Rock What You Got, a book about teen body image, in 2010 at the age of 20. At 15, her younger brother Patrick cofounded a fashion-for-charity brand called Project360. When he was in eighth grade, Caroline’s son, Jack Schlossberg, cofounded ReLight New York, which raised more than $100,000 to install compact florescent lights in low-income housing developments.
And RFK Jr.’s daughter Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy (along with her earcatching friends Sara Delano Roosevelt and Consuelo Vanderbilt Costin) signed on to an endorsement-to-charity fund in her early 20s. So is Kennedy 4.0 locked and loaded? Likely.
Polls show Joe Kennedy III with a substantial lead and campaign pot. (In a family that, as Mark Shriver has remarked, was almost continuously involved in one campaign or another all their lives, the machinery has never gotten rusty. Even Kennedys who have not run for office themselves have hit the pavement, phones, or Facebook for the others.) In March, Bobby and Maria Shriver and Rory Kennedy hosted a big-ticket Hollywood fundraiser; Caroline Kennedy and her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, did the same in Manhattan a few days later. The campaign reportedly raised $1.3 million in three months.
Even without an interest in politics, the 20-something generation of Kennedys has the potential for star power. Rose Kennedy Schlossberg, who is often described as a ringer for her grandmother Jackie (and who, with her brother and sister, will inherit the biggest fortune in the family), reportedly remarked a couple of years ago that she had "better hurry up and run for something." (Historian Schlesinger is reported to have called the then-teenaged Rose the future face of the Kennedys.) When Rose’s then-18-year-old brother, Jack (formally John Bouvier Kennedy Schlossberg) wrote a letter to The New York Times disputing a critical column about his grandfather JFK, it led to speculation about his political ambition as well. Kick Kennedy is about to become one of the family’s most frequently viewed faces: She’s been cast in Aaron (The West Wing) Sorkin’s upcoming HBO series, The Newsroom, about a cable news network.
"Absolutely, family can be very helpful on so many levels," agrees Mark Shriver. "I have four siblings who are incredibly smart, and they work very, very hard. That support system by itself is amazing. And I have 20-some-odd cousins all over the country.... But you can’t be just a show horse. If you don’t have the substance, if you aren’t solid on the issues, the conversation is over."
Many pundits and family members also have high expectations of Joe Kennedy III’s twin, Matthew, who co-managed Ted Kennedy’s final Senate campaign and worked in the Obama White House Counsel’s office before moving to the Department of Commerce. (Matt’s famously selfdeprecating stump speech for Obama was a YouTube hit.)
But can they maintain the old Kennedy string of nearly 65 years? Well, in 2009, Edward M. Kennedy III, then aged 11, told a New England news network that he intended to follow in some of the family’s deepest footsteps by running for the US Senate from Massachusetts—in 2044.
photography by bachrach/getty images (family portrait). KAYANA SZYMCZAK/GETTY IMAGES (JOSEPH ); HULTON ARCHIVE/ GETTY IMAGES (JFK AND JACKIE ); JOHN MOORE /GETTY IMAGES (SCHLOSSBERG ); ASTRID STAWIARZ /GETTY IMAGES (KICK); RON GALELLA /WIREIMAGE (SHRIVERs); THREE LIONS /HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES (JFK AND ROBERT ); KEVIN WINTER /GETTY IMAGES (SCHWARZENEGGERs)