= This case study of Congressman Patrick Kennedy's rise to political prominence illustrates new issues of celebrity that have emerged in America over the last four decades. It explores a number of contemporary topics, along with how famous people use money, media, and name identification in order to build support and shape the political process. Featuring lively stories about Patrick Kennedy—covering both public life and private citizenship, this book provides an in-depth look at the Congressman's political emergence, the effect of the Kennedy family legacy—on him and the country, and the lessons of celebrity politics in general. For those fascinated by the decades of political, social, and economic clout of the Kennedy generations and phenomenon, and Americans interested in the celebrity influence on the country's political climate today.
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DARRELL WEST is a professor of Political Science and Director of the John Hazen White, Sr., Public Opinion Laboratory at Brown University. He is a frequent commentator on media and elections and has served as an election consultant to local television stations in Providence since 1988.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It was the height of the US. House Republican impeachment effort against President William Jefferson Clinton. Speaking in the legislative chamber on December 18, 1998, conservative Bob Barr (Rep.-Ga.), the first member to introduce an impeachment resolution on Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, quoted President John F. Kennedy to buttress his point that no one was above the law. Using language from Kennedy's famous 1956 book Profiles in Courage, Barr moralized, "Americans are free to disagree with the law but not to disobey it. For a government of laws and not of men, no man however prominent and powerful, no mob however unruly or boisterous is entitled to defy a court of law."
Seething quietly as he heard the speech was Representative Patrick Kennedy, youngest son of Senator Edward Kennedy, nephew to President John Kennedy and former U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy, and cousin to a slew of young Kennedys. The 31year-old legislator, who had been elected to the House from Rhode Island in 1994, could not believe the outrage he was hearing. Barr was using Kennedy's beloved uncle to criticize a Democratic president whom Patrick supported! Kennedy was not going to take that lying down.
Exploding out of his seat, Kennedy headed for the House Speaker's lobby just a few feet away from the floor. Spying Barr coming off the floor talking to reporters, Kennedy screamed at him, "How dare you! Anybody who has been to a racist group has no right invoking my uncle's memory." The charge was a reference to Barr's appearance at a meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacy group. "Young man," Barr started to respond, "you are wrong. Young man, you are showing a lack of decorum." Kennedy immediately fired back, "I'm a duly elected representative of my state." The encounter ended with Barr sarcastically replying, "I'm impressed. I'm duly impressed."
The outspokenness Kennedy demonstrated that day came naturally to the young man. After all, he was raised in one of the most famous families in America. Ever since his grandfather Joseph Kennedy's emergence on the national political scene in the 1920s and 1930s, the Kennedy name has been synonymous with wealth, power, and celebrity. His uncle's rise to the presidency in 1960 and efforts to energize government ushered in an era of political activism personified by the Peace Corps, the space program, and a call for civil rights. John F. Kennedy inspired a new generation into public service, including a young Bill Clinton.
JFK's tragic assassination in 1963 truncated the nation's hopes, but soon a new legacy was born. Jackie Kennedy's graceful mourning during her husband's funeral—the first time such an event had been televised live nationally—deepened public respect for the Kennedys. Before long, the Camelot legend was flourishing, helped along by a sympathetic Life magazine article by Theodore White. The 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy and the subsequent ups and downs of Senator Ted Kennedy's career reinforced America's fascination with the family. Fueled by the tabloidization of the country's press and the emergence of new television shows such as A Current Affair, Hard Copy, and Inside Edition, Americans followed the trials and tribulations of the Kennedy family with unparalleled interest.
Now a new group of Kennedys has come along to extend the dynasty to a new generation. If the Kennedys are America's royal family, then Patrick Kennedy is the political crown prince. Within a decade, he has risen from a reformer in the Rhode Island legislature to being a leader in Congress. A passionate spokesperson for the less fortunate, he is one of his party's top fund-raisers as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Over the last three elections, he has raised millions of dollars for himself and his party. He ranks fifth in the House Democratic leadership and is a close protégé of Democratic leader Richard Gephardt. With cousin Joseph Kennedy's retirement in November 1998, Patrick is the highest elected Kennedy of his generation.
Kennedy is the latest in a long line of rich and famous Americans who have made it into Congress. In recent decades celebrities such as Bill Bradley, Jack Kemp, Steve Largent, J. C. Watts, John Glenn, and Sonny Bono have become successful politicians. The rapid rise of these individuals in national politics is testimony to the tremendous advantages of fame. In previous centuries, the halls of Congress were packed with farmers, merchants, and local ward-heelers who worked their way up from poverty. It was the American Dream to better yourself by going into politics. Ind~ed, for those born without economic or social advantage, politics was the traditional rote to upward mobility. Today the combination of high campaign costs, weak political parties, citizen cynicism, and media domination of the political process places a premium on personal fame and wealth. It is no surprise that one-third of the U.S. Senate is comprised of millionaires, and that candidates with famous last names such as Kennedy, Bush, Bradley, and Gore run for office. "Celebrityhood" is a major path to political power in America.
If celebrity is reshaping American politics, there is no better example than Patrick Kennedy. Wealthy and famous, he is the archetype of legacy politics that has become common in America. A detailed study of Kennedy's rise to prominence provides important lessons about how our political system functions. This book uses the story of Kennedy's political emergence to explore what works in election campaigns, how the media cover famous politicians, and the manner in which political institutions are used by adroit politicians.
Kennedy's rise to prominence was almost derailed by his cousin William Smith's Palm Beach sexual assault trial in 1991. That event divided the Kennedys and ushered in a new media era that would set the standard for tabloid coverage of later celebrity court cases, such as those of Michael Jackson and O. J. Simpson. The case had all the ingredients of a highly rated miniseries: sex, drinking, and famous Kennedy names. The press went wild. Why had Senator Ted Kennedy awakened his young son and cousin to go to a bar late at night? What had happened in the early morning hours at the compound? Although Smith was eventually acquitted, the experience drained Patrick and nearly drove him to renounce public service.
The most recent episode in Kennedy's life—his election to the U.S. Congress—introduced a new cast of compelling characters, such as Bill Clinton, Dick Gephardt, and Newt Gingrich. When Kennedy entered Congress, he faced the new Republican majority committed to dismantling the very programs identified with the Kennedy dame. For two years, Patrick Kennedy walked a tightrope between attacking Republican extremism on domestic policy and working closely with the Republican majority on the National Security Committee to bring military contracts back to his state. It was not the only time that Kennedy used Republican connections to advance his career.
Kennedy's political emergence is illuminating in its own right, but his story also is a personal drama about the struggle of dealing with fame in a media era. The fame associated with the Kennedy family has had a tremendous impact on the lives of the Kennedy cousins. For some of the "third generation," as they are called, it has been a terrible burden. Never able to overcome the trauma of his father Robert's assassination, David Kennedy died the victim of a drug overdose in 1984. John Kennedy, Jr., was 'killed in a 1999 airplane accident. Several others have been treated for alcohol and drug abuse. Patrick Kennedy himself was treated for cocaine abuse as a teenager and was accused in 2000 of pushing an airport security guard while rushing to catch a plane. No family in America has labored under more unrealistic stereotypes than the Kennedys. This book shows how Patrick Kennedy built a successful career during one of the most tumultuous political times in American history.
As a close follower of Patrick Kennedy's career, I have had a number of opportunities to observe Kennedy firsthand. I first met him on February 27, 1991, over lunch at the Brown University Faculty Club. He has addressed my political science classes at Brown University, and I have moderated television debates in his campaign. As a pollster at Brown University, I have monitored the ups and downs of his political fortunes. For research on this book, I conducted 94 interviews, including conversations with Patrick Kennedy, family members, top political advisers, business associates, priests, and political adversaries. I have read thousands of newspaper and magazine articles about Kennedy from his childhood to the present time and seen many television stories about him. I have reviewed confidential strategy memos, unpublished interviews, private journals kept by friends, polling data, and documents dealing with his voting record, campaign finance records, and testimony in the Palm Beach trial of his cousin William Smith. This information allows me to present new insights into how the Kennedy family functions and how the next generation of Kennedy cousins has made the transition to prominence.
I am grateful to many people for their assistance on this project. A number of individuals took time out of their busy schedules to share their thoughts about Patrick Kennedy. I could not have written this book without them. M. Charles Bakst of the Providence Journal deserves a special thanks for lending me a tape of an indepth interview he conducted with Patrick Kennedy. I also appreciate the helpfulness of people at the Brown University Library, Providence College Library, Georgetown University Library, and Boston Public Library who helped me locate material on the Kennedys. Paul Herrnson of the University of Maryland read an early draft and gave me very helpful comments. Beth Gillett Mejia of Prentice Hall made a number of suggestions that improved the book's organization. Serena Hoffman shepherded the book through the production process, and Ann Grogg did an excellent job of copy-editing the manuscript. My biggest debt goes to my wife, Annie Schmitt, with whom I spent countless hours discussing this project and who provided detailed comments on the manuscript. Her keen eye and helpful suggestions made this a better book.
Darrell M. West
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