A dynasty’s demise

The Kennedy name is no longer enough to launch a political career

i have decided not to run for Congress. So you may stop reading and instead check msnbc.com to see what the talking heads are saying about me — unless you’re wondering why I imagine my decision to be worthy of a news story.

Of course it’s not, since my name is Lobron. But if my name were Kennedy — specifically, Joseph P. Kennedy III — and I had decided not to run for the congressional seat now held by William Delahunt, it would earn me front-page real estate in the Boston Globe.

A Kennedy who doesn’t run gets more attention than an ordinary citizen who does for lots of reasons: money, fundraising clout, name recognition, dazzling familiar teeth, etc. We’ve seen the possibility of Candidate Kennedy alter dozens of recent campaigns, from former US Rep. Joseph Kennedy II’s aborted gubernatorial bid in 1998 to rumors surrounding Sen. Edward Kennedy’s widow, Vicki, in the 2009 Senate special election primary. Now, into the third generation, the pattern continues. A Kennedy is rumored to be interested, the media blow their trumpets, and other hopeful candidates make noises of deference worthy of the Tudor court.

But lately, it’s always turned out that the Kennedy in question isn’t running, which makes me wonder if the Kennedys are more aware than the rest of us about a shift in the zeitgeist.

jeffrey thomas, a political analyst and former legislative aide to Edward M. Kennedy, thinks that voters’ fondness for the late senator isn’t translating into a desire for another generation. “I think there was a sense that the senator would go out like Strom Thurmond, at [age] 92,” says Thomas, who now advises Democratic donors. Among long-time liberals, Thomas sees more nostalgia for Ted than reflexive enthusiasm for grandchildren and grand-nephews who look the way Ted and his brothers did in 1960.

His analysis is born out by a recent Rasmussen poll, in which 58 percent of respondents felt the Kennedy dynasty was “over in Massachusetts.” The remaining 42 percent were split between those who felt the dynasty would continue and those who weren’t sure.

Massachusetts’ demographics have changed a lot in 50 years — we’re much less Irish and much less white — but if Scott Brown’s victory is an indication, there’s still plenty of enthusiasm for good-looking white politicos. But at this fleeting moment, the preference seems to be for the “regular guy” variety. The Kennedys, to their credit, have never pretended to be anything but exceptionally privileged.

At this fleeting moment, the preference seems to be for the “regular guy.”And privilege poses a political challenge in a recession. I conducted an informal poll of young staffers and interns in my office (average age: 23) about their attitude towards the Kennedys and their appetite for a new generation. This is a group of smart, accomplished college graduates who are encountering one of the bleakest employment climates in recent memories. Several are juggling waitstaff and retail jobs with unpaid internships in the hopes of landing full-time employment, and they showed a strong distaste for the idea that anyone can inherit a political seat — or any other job. “Nobody has a right to that job,” said one. “I’d look at him like anyone else,” said another.

But here’s the interesting thing: This group got interested in Joe III once they learned something about him beyond his last name. They admired his role as an assistant district attorney for the Cape Cod and the Islands, and his time with the Peace Corps in Latin America. They liked that he hasn’t been in the news for the embarrassing reasons — affairs, ugly divorces, illegal fireworks — that so crippled many of the male members of Joe II’s generation. What they don’t care much about is his role in the Kennedy family, especially since none were sure how he relates to the president or the late senator. As one said, “We’re getting pretty far down the food chain, at this point.”

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But public service and international volunteering hold a strong appeal among a generation now volunteering in droves — at home and abroad — as both a means to a real job and a way of engaging with the world. If Joe III does some day launch a political career, 20-somethings may be interested in him. They’ll just be interested in spite of his last name rather than because of it.

Perhaps the Kennedy dynasty is over, or perhaps it is simply regrouping. Indeed, its best young hope may be quietly doing exactly what his generation admires: working hard to build credentials on his own terms.