Patrick Kennedy announced his retirement from Congress this week not at a news conference but in a video with a background of maudlin music.
The 42-year-old Rhode Island congressman begins by talking about “my ultimate source of spiritual strength,” referring not to God but to his father, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, and then wraps himself around what he considers the Kennedy legacy.
He boasts endlessly about his accomplishments, but his dour gaze makes it seem as if he is trying to convince himself of the value of his efforts. Time and again he evokes his father’s and family name before saying, “My life is taking a new direction now and I will not be running for re-election.”
Kennedy’s constituents deserve more than that, but he is incapable of giving it to them. He couldn’t be expected to stand before the press and say that his father’s death struck him like a thunderbolt and the election of Scott Brown seemed a repudiation of his father’s legacy. If he had done that, he might well have started to cry.
And he couldn’t say he was facing the toughest re-election campaign of his life, with dismal early polls that suggest Rhode Island may have had enough of him. He couldn’t admit that he didn’t have the stomach to face that fight without the Kennedy muscle. He cannot even face the people who elected him, but brings in a PR operation that attempts to ring the heartstrings. But the music is out of tune. The melody is off key.
Many mock Kennedy and salute his leaving politics, but he is in truth a victim of his family as much as its stalwart. The Kennedys have an image of a healthy, vibrant family sailing on the Cape, playing touch football, a rowdy band of brothers. They were, in fact a sickly family, starting with JFK — who might not have survived a second term of office.
Like his Uncle Jack, Patrick was a weak little boy who spent much time in bed. He had an asthmatic condition that often has a psychosomatic component. His parents were alcoholics. On one occasion, Teddy pointed out to friends the crumbled body of his wife Joan passed out in the back seat of a car. Despite the prodigious amounts that Teddy drank, he was always up early the next morning, back to work and play.
Teddy was a man who wanted to bring up his sons in his image. In their deeply troubled marriage, Teddy and Joan fought over Patrick. Joan coddled her poor son, sheltering him in her arms. Teddy pushed Patrick out into the world, pulling him off his oxygen machine, hiring a German governess who put the boy through six hours a day of exercise and study.
When his big brother, Ted Jr., was forced to undergo the amputation of his cancerous leg, for a while little Patrick seemed hardly to exist anymore.
In school, Patrick was the kid you picked on. He was the Kennedy you could knock around and abuse. When his parents quietly separated, 16-year-old Patrick moved to Boston to live with his mother. He attended Phillips Academy, where he developed the family taste for drugs and liquor and ended up in a fancy rehabilitation clinic in New Hampshire. When he got out, he went to a psychiatrist who put him on antidepressant medicine.
In September 1986, Patrick entered Georgetown University, where two of his cousins were already a presence. Maria Shriver was on the board of regents and her younger brother Anthony was a flamboyant undergraduate. Once again Patrick was the last and the least of the Kennedys.
Patrick dropped out after two weeks, and the next year transferred to Providence College in Rhode Island. He was one of the oldest freshmen. His cousins had traveled to Africa and South America. They had volunteered and had all kinds of adventures. His life was a blank slate. He had few friends. The women in his class spurned him.
As a sophomore, 20-year-old Patrick was diagnosed with a large tumor on his spinal cord that was removed during a five-hour operation. When Patrick recovered, he had an epiphany. He didn’t like being a kid. He didn’t like being a student.
“I wanted desperately to be part of that Kennedy family legacy in both a personal and public way,” Patrick said later.
He did not want to forge his own life beyond the parameters of family. He wanted to take up that Kennedy sword and flail away at any who tried to hurt him. He decided to run for the Rhode Island House from the heavily working class Mount Pleasant area of Providence.
It did not matter that there was a good Democratic incumbent, Jack Skeffington. Patrick was a Kennedy and, with the help of his family, he would muscle his way in there.
Patrick went to his father for help. When Teddy had married Joan, the couple wanted to move west to Montana or Arizona, somewhere to start a new life. But Teddy’s father said he must stay in Massachusetts and enter politics, and nobody stood against Joseph P. Kennedy.
So Teddy knew what it meant to have your own life, how crucial it was. His father knew surely that his son should do something first, go to law school, join the armed force, serve in the Peace Corps, start a business. Do something. But Teddy brought in Kennedy money and Kennedy charisma, and poor Frank Skeffington did not have a chance.
On election morning, at every polling place stood a Kennedy next to a photographer with a Polaroid camera, offering voters the chance to be photographed with a member of the legendary family. One of the Kennedys was 26-year-old John Jr. He had a reputation as little more than a playboy, but John was fascinated by politics and was thinking that one day he might well run for office. But not now, not when people would vote for him largely because of his famous name.
As John stood being photographed and chatting with the Irish and Italian immigrants who were in endless awe of him, Skeffington showed up. John broke off from the photographer and walked over to the beleaguered incumbent.
“Jack, I’m going to tell you something,” John said. “I don’t like being here. I don’t think it’s fair for me to be here. I don’t think it’s fair. This is for your neighborhood.”
Patrick’s victory cost a record $73 a vote, but it cost far more than that. It cost Patrick what most people would call a life. He donned the cloak of office as if it were camouflage to hide the insecure, uncertain young man that he was.
In 1994, he ran for Congress, defeating Republican Ken Vigilante, an emergency room physician who specialized in treating AIDS. Vigilante earned roughly $100,000 a year, about the same that Patrick earned from his trust funds. Vigilante had so much more life experience, so much more genuine passion, but he did not have the Kennedy name.
The young Congressman Kennedy supported all the progressive issues of his party. He had lunch once a week with his father. He did not party in a public way. He did not date much. He never married. He had no family of his own. He avoided talking to the national media. He worked hard.
But entering the House of Representatives is like going to a tough high school in the bad part of town where everybody takes everybody else’s measure. And although his colleagues were polite to Patrick, it was clear that what he had going for him was his name, a useful device to raise money, but he did not have the stuff of a leader.
In 1998, Nancy Mayer, who was being touted as Patrick’s next Republican opponent, sat next to him at a political event on a brilliant fall day in Rhode Island.
“Patrick, what are you doing here?” she remembers asking. “You’re too young for this. You should be outside having fun with your friends.”
His face turned red and he did not reply.
In 2000, Patrick admitted that he “suffered from depression . . . I am on a lot of different medications for, among other things, depression.” No one asked whether he was depressed because he was in the wrong place, living the wrong life.
Six years later, he crashed his car into a barrier on Capitol Hill, and before entering a rehab clinic admitted that he had a “long-term struggle with depression and addiction.” Last summer, he entered rehab again to deal with his alcoholism, depression and addiction to prescription pain medication.
And so Patrick Kennedy finally is leaving a Congress he never should have entered. His is a story of a young man who never had his own life and fled into a mythic family world that he thought would protect him.
Laurence Leamer is a best-selling author, historian, and award-winning journalist who is considered a leading authority on the Kennedy family for his trilogy “The Kennedy Women,” “The Kennedy Men,” and “Sons of Camelot.” He also has written best-selling biographies of Johnny Carson, the Reagan family, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His latest work is “Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach.”
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