The End of the Kennedy Dynasty?

Darrell M. West
Darrell West
Darrell M. West Senior Fellow - Center for Technology Innovation, Douglas Dillon Chair in Governmental Studies

February 16, 2010

It ended with a whimper, not a bang. When Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) announced his decision not to seek reelection, it guaranteed that for the first time since 1947, America would not have a Kennedy in national office.

At one point more than a decade ago, there were five elected Kennedys: Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Reps. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Patrick Kennedy, Maryland state Rep. Mark Shriver and Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Soon there will be none at the national level, although Bobby Shriver holds a seat on the Santa Monica City Council.

How could a family that once held the presidency, multiple Senate and House seats and prominent state government posts be reduced to one city council seat in a small, albeit well-to-do, California town of 88,000 people? There are several reasons for the end of one of America’s most powerful political dynasties.

Many members of the third Kennedy generation have followed the course of other members of their age group in choosing community over government service. A number of them are interested in making a difference but are doing so through nonprofit organizations outside the public glare of elective office.

For example, Tim Shriver leads the Special Olympics (the organization his mother, Eunice, founded). Mark Shriver is vice president of Save the Children. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is active in the environmental organizations Riverkeeper and the Waterkeeper Alliance. Kara Kennedy Allen is a television producer for VSA arts. Anthony Shriver runs the Best Buddies International charity. Rory Kennedy is a well-respected documentary filmmaker. Edward Kennedy Jr. speaks out on behalf of disability rights.

The decline of the Kennedy political dynasty also reflects difficulties in extending the family brand to new markets. Mark Shriver ran for Congress in 2002 but lost in the Democratic primary to Rep. Chris Van Hollen. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend sought her state’s governorship in 2002 but was defeated by Republican Robert Ehrlich. Joe Kennedy thought about running for Massachusetts governor in 1998 but was forced out of the race amid unfavorable publicity concerning his divorce and family relationships. Max Kennedy pulled out of his Massachusetts run for Congress in 2001. Caroline Kennedy attempted to win an appointment to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in 2009, but Gov. David Paterson appointed Kirsten Gillibrand instead.

Then there are the personal issues that have afflicted the third generation of Kennedys. One-quarter of the Kennedy cousins have been treated for drug or alcohol abuse, which is well above the national average. For all the glamour associated with the family, it seems that it is not easy, psychologically or emotionally, being a Kennedy.

Patrick Kennedy is good example. He has been in rehab at least three times in his life. Following an early-morning car accident at the U.S. Capitol in 2006, he sought treatment. While growing up, he found that people either loved or hated him based on his last name rather than his individual behavior. Once, many years ago, when he was sitting with a friend in a Providence, R.I., eatery, a woman he did not know came up and offered his dining companion $300 in cash on the spot if he would let her sit at the table.

This was typical of the Kennedy mystique. It brought not only fame, money and opportunity but also pressures that were extraordinary in nature. The high public expectations were nearly impossible to satisfy and created, for some Kennedys, feelings of inadequacy that compromised their ability to serve.

It may be risky to declare the end of a dynasty when there are 25 existing members of the third generation and more than 50 of the fourth generation. It is likely that a Kennedy will run for public office again. But like a contemporary member of the Adams or Roosevelt family, that person will have to make it on his or her own. America is a merit-based culture. Although inherited wealth and fame confer powerful advantages, future Kennedy candidates will be judged based on what they can do.