A non-drinking family man with a strong social conscience... so can he put the Kennedys back in the White House?
Every time a US presidential election looms speculation mounts that one of America’s political royalty will be in the race. This time, it’s 37-year-old Joe Kennedy III, grandson of Bobby, who some believe could be the Democratic Party’s choice to take on Donald Trump next time around, writes Emily Hourican.
Jackie Kennedy told Life magazine just four days after her husband John F Kennedy was assassinated: “Don’t let it be forgot, that for one brief, shining moment there was Camelot.” In evoking the spirit of King Arthur and his legendary court, Jackie was carefully, and cleverly, ensuring her husband’s legacy; a mythical 1,000 days where goodness, generosity and idealism had triumphed over more base political considerations. But, of course, one of the key points of the Arthurian legend is that he is the ‘Once and Future King’; that he will, one day, return.
And that too has been the point of the Kennedys. John F wasn’t the first choice for president — that was his elder brother Joseph Jnr, killed during the Second World War — but neither was he, by any means, the last.
After John there was, briefly, Bobby, still the greatest hope-that-got-away for so many Democrat Americans. But Bobby was assassinated in 1968. After him came Ted, who served in the Senate for nearly 47 years, but whose chances of the highest office were destroyed by the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick.
Ted died in 2009 and now, after some lean Kennedy years, there is hope again, this time in the person of Bobby’s grandson, 37-year-old Joe Kennedy III, Democratic Massachusetts Congressman, and possible 2020 White House contender.
It was Joe who delivered the Democratic response to Trump’s State of the Union address. Last year, in a speech that has been watched over 10 million times, he took a stand against cuts to the healthcare law. Responding to House Speaker Paul Ryan (referring to a plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act as an “act of mercy”), Joe said: “With all due respect to our Speaker, he and I must have read different scripture. The one I read calls on us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, and to comfort the sick… This is not an act of mercy,” he continued. “It is an act of malice.”
Joe himself is sidestepping the idea of running for president — “I wouldn’t hold your breath on that one,” he said in response to a direct question recently. “I happen to be in a position where the moment you have one job, the first thing everybody wants to know is, when are you trying to get another one? I’ve got a pretty full plate. The job’s the easiest part of my day and it’s not even close.” By which he meant his duties as father, to Eleanor and James: “There is nothing so humbling as being a parent to young children.”
It is, of course, necessary for possible candidates to hedge their bets until the very last minute, and on the scale of denials, this one was wavering enough to suggest that it is a real possibility.
As Larry Tye, of the Boston Globe and long-time observer of Joe’s political career, says: “I can’t imagine a more compelling dream for progressives here and everywhere than not just bringing down the mean-spirited Donald Trump, but having the dragon-slayer be Joseph P Kennedy III, heir to America’s political royalty and grandson of the most passionate of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s sons, Bobby.”
Although the vision of America under Bobby Kennedy never came about, he laid deep foundations for the engagement of the next generations, talking to his children about the conditions of poor Americans. “Do you know how lucky you are?” he asked them once, after a visit to rural Mississippi. “You have a responsibility. You have to give something back.” He would describe entire apartments smaller than their living room, with families as large as theirs living in them, and drive them through Washington ghettos, saying: “See? Street after street, there’s no grass, no playground. These kids want to be able to play too.”
In this way Bobby created the repeating narrative of Camelot in a way that Jackie Kennedy did not. Her children, John and Caroline, stayed away from politics, whereas Bobby’s kids, many of them, were drawn to it.
Joseph, Bobby’s eldest son and Joe III’s father, was 15 when Bobby was killed, and already known for his bad temper — he described himself as the family pitbull.
Following his father’s murder, he went through a troubled and turbulent period that involved leaving and being expelled from various private schools, fights with his brothers and cousins, and dropping out of Berkeley College. In 1973, he was driving a jeep on Nantucket which overturned, injuring his brother David, and paralysing David’s girlfriend, Pam Kelly. The police charged Joe with reckless driving and the incident would surface periodically throughout his career. Perhaps the accident had a sobering effect on Joe, because he then went back to college and graduated in 1976. Three years later he married Sheila Rauch, with whom he had twins, Joe and Matthew, and in 1986 he ran for Tip O’Neill’s seat in the House of Representatives.
During his political career, Joseph made many brave stands on human rights. He championed the cause of the Guildford Four in Congress and became friendly with Paul Hill, who later married Joe’s sister, Courtney Kennedy — who studied history at Trinity College — although they separated in 2006.
There is a good chance Joseph would have been governor of Massachusetts, and maybe more, except that in 1993, when Joe was 13, Joseph applied to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston for an annulment of his marriage to Sheila, from whom he was by then divorced. Sheila Rauch not only refused to agree to the annulment, she also wrote a bestselling book Shattered Faith: A Woman’s Struggle to Stop the Catholic Church From Annulling Her Marriage, the fall-out from which contributed to Joseph withdrawing from the governor race.
Joe is Joseph’s second child, a twin, born eight minutes after his brother Matthew — “it was a great eight minutes” Matt once joked. He has an open manner and a thoughtful, even slightly hesitant, delivery style that works in his favour by taking away the whiff of entitlement and hereditary privilege that could alienate voters.
He grew up in the Boston area, and he and Matt went to Buckingham Browne & Nichols, a prep school in Cambridge, where friends remember Joe as being “studious without being a nerd” or, in the words of one old friend: “He wasn’t a gossip. He was something of an old soul… you just had a sense that he was already mature — reflective and composed in a way the average 16 or 17-year-old wouldn’t be. It was almost like when you were around him you had some adult supervision”.
He played American football, lacrosse and hockey, although none brilliantly, and spent summers and holidays in Cape Cod at the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port, along with all the other Kennedy cousins.
After school Joe went to Stanford to study management science and engineering, and where, he claims, he and Matt were both easily absorbed into college life and their name caused little fuss. “Chelsea Clinton was there at that point,” Joe later recalled. “You could tell who she was because there would be three guys with empty backpacks behind her.”
Given the tendency towards alcoholism among Kennedys, it is worth noting that Joe doesn’t drink, and never has. Asked about his vices, Joe himself says: “I definitely swear more than I should. I have a pretty terrible sweet tooth... Candy. Chocolate chip cookies. Cake. Pretty much anything.” Which is mild to the point of absurdity for a Kennedy.
After Stanford, Joe joined the Peace Corps, founded by his grand-uncle, President John F Kennedy, and went to the Dominican Republic, which he described as, “cold and beautiful and breathtaking and poor. I mean, like dirt poor. And amazing. Incredibly generous people”. He recalls one little girl who looked at him and burst into tears — she had never seen hair like his, and thought he was a witch.
That experience was apparently the real start of his political awakening; the realisation that “There’s nothing those kids... could ever do that was going to get them to Harvard Law School. I was no more talented, I was no smarter, I was no better than any of them. I just had the resources and support and platform. It was a struggle for them to make sure they could turn the lights on. I would not be here at all but for that experience,” he has said. “I draw on it every single day.”
He stayed two years in the Dominican Republic, then returned to America and enrolled at Harvard Law School, where he met Lauren Birchfield, in a class taught by Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Lauren claims that she didn’t know he was “one of those Kennedys; I grew up in California. So, out there, you get a little less of the sort of, ‘Here’s what each one of them looks like’, and the ‘Where are they now?’ which was kind of nice. I got the opportunity just to get to know Joe for who he was. And the rest is history”.
That said, first Lauren, from a Protestant, conservative background, had to introduce Joe, a liberal Catholic, to her family — “It was quite a moment for them when I sort of announced that I was coming home with my new boyfriend, who is Joe Kennedy,” Lauren has said.
The couple married in 2012, the same year Joe was elected to the House of Representatives, where he has had three very credible terms. He is adamant that he is in politics because he wants to be, and not because it is the family business. “The person that actually pushed me hardest not to do this was my dad,” he said recently. “He said, ‘Make sure that this is something that, one, you’re ready for, and, two, that you find somewhere inside you that this is a commitment that is coming from you. Because if it is not, people will tell’.”
On the wall of his congressional office is a poster of the text of a speech Bobby Kennedy gave in 1966: “You can use your enormous privilege and opportunity to seek purely private pleasure and gain, but history will judge you. And, as the years pass, you will ultimately judge yourself, on the extent to which you have used your gifts to enrich the lives of your fellow man.”
So, is Joe III for real? “We’ll find out in what will be a long, gruelling, campaign,” says Larry Tye. “But so far he seems just the kind of bridge-builder Bobby was half a century ago — between islands of blacks, browns and blue-collars; between terrified parents and estranged youths; and between the establishment he’d grown up in versus the New Politics he heralded — at a moment when America was comparably riven.”
Perhaps most significantly, “his grandmother, 90-year-old Ethel Kennedy, is convinced Joe is the closest thing the family or the US has produced to her beloved Bobby”.