Ted Kennedy’s last official letter before his death — meant to guarantee that a like-minded Democrat would replace him in the Senate — set off a minor firestorm in Massachusetts. But that may be nothing compared with the intra-family struggle between his formidable wife, Vicki Reggie Kennedy, and one of his nephews, former six-term Congressman Joe Kennedy, to gain his Senate seat.
The legislation that the mortally ill legislator called for would change the law requiring a special election and grant Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick power to appoint a temporary replacement.
The kicker to the state’s anemic minority Republican Party is the inconvenient fact that, just five years earlier, the Democrats revoked a law that would have allowed Republican Gov. Mitt Romney to replace John Kerry with a senator of his choice if Kerry had been elected president in 2004.
“The hypocrisy is astounding,” thundered state House Minority Leader Bradley H. Jones Jr.
But Kennedy’s last official letter will be a teapot tempest — a special election still would have to occur within five months — compared with the clash over a permanent replacement.
Insiders in Massachusetts politics, as well as in the Kennedy family, say the two top candidates for the job are his widow and Joe Kennedy. Despite official demurrals, both want the seat very much, those insiders say. And both feel entitled.
Vicki Reggie Kennedy, 55, is a steel-magnolia type from Crowley, La. A Tulane University Law School graduate, she was a divorced mother of two practicing banking law at a white glove firm in Washington, D.C., when she began her romance with Ted.
Her closest adviser and confidant is her dad, Judge Edmund M. Reggie, who was appointed to the judiciary in Louisiana by the notorious Earl K. Long, the brother of “The Kingfish” Huey Long. A major player in the state’s southern gothic politics, he directed John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign in Louisiana and has been a friend of the family ever since.
In 1992, the same year his daughter married Ted, Reggie ran afoul of banking laws. He was charged with 13 counts of bank fraud but eventually pleaded no contest to one charge, avoiding what could have been a 10-year sentence, slipping away with just 120 days of home confinement.
Ted's romance with Vicki occurred as he emerged from his "second bachelorhood" years of wine and roses. The disastrous 1991 spring break rape allegation against his nephew William Kennedy Smith in Palm Beach, Fla., provided the catalyst for Ted's transformation.
Ted and Vicki had known each other casually through family ties for a number of years, but it became serious in September of that year, after Smith’s acquittal, according to biographer Adam Clymer.
A month later, Ted fought to shed the wave of revulsion over that sordid incident, made even more ridiculous by his participation in the spring break shenanigans. He delivered a mea culpa speech at Harvard University in which he acknowledged "faults in the conduct of my personal life," and essentially promised to mend his ways and go back to fighting the good liberal fight.
A longtime Kennedy family lawyer and adviser said: “Vicki took Ted’s hand that fall and led him back from the gates of hell where he was bound. There is no doubt that she engineered his comeback, in both a personal and a political way.”
Following their 1992 wedding, Vicki went to work on his tough 1994 re-election campaign against Mitt Romney, which was one of the first contests he feared he could lose since he was first elected in 1962.
Vicki organized women’s groups and anti-gun groups, bringing together disparate constituencies throughout the state. She helped Ted's rehab and political rebirth in ways great and small.
A Boston Herald gossip columnist noted during the campaign that Vicki instinctively took drinks out of Ted’s hand when pictures were snapped.
The Washington Post’s Lois Romano wrote that Vicki had become the senator’s “First Mate, adviser and caregiver. Vicki helps him prep for talk shows, works on his speeches and played a pivotal role in his decision to endorse Barack Obama, who she helped court Catholic votes. Her political skills and grace are such that there has been quiet speculation that she could succeed her husband in the Senate.”
The family lawyer observed: “Vicki knew she needed to save Ted’s legacy, if she was to have a political brand to inherit. She is very ambitious politically and had her eye on her own future from the start.”
Standing in the way of that future could be 56-year-old Joe Kennedy, RFK and Ethel’s first-born son, by far the most successful and ambitious of his generation.
Joe has an old-fashioned, Kennedy-style brain trust of tough-minded, well-educated and arrogant men who run Boston-based Citizens Energy Corp., which imports fuel and distributes it for free or at greatly reduced prices to poor and elderly people in New England.
During the past 30 years, Joe has turned it into an organization that ensured his place in the hearts of a vast constituency throughout the region — and he has been sure to see that he personally receives lavish credit.
Joe has spent a fortune on super-dramatic TV ads touting himself as the savior of New England's poor and elderly.
The ads show Joe walking sadly through the burned-out rubble of a house presumably owned by an elderly or out-of-luck family who met a tragic fate because they couldn't afford oil and relied on dangerous electric heaters, or even more desperate means of beating the frigid New England winters.
Next he is shown personally carrying an oil hose, dressed in what looks like a firefighter’s overcoat, cheerfully greeting a grateful senior citizen, who will avoid an incineration death because of Joe's largesse.
(The less-than-palatable aspect of the operation is that it is largely because of the propaganda interests of virulently anti-American Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, who supplies the oil.)
Joe’s team burns with a desire to win election to the vacant Senate seat and take over Ted’s formidable staff and power base.
Edward Klein, the author of five books on the Kennedy family, including the new biography "Edward Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died" (Crown Book: 2009) tells Newsmax that there is inherent danger in Vicki’s probable challenge to Joe’s ambitions.
“The Kennedy family will back Joe and oppose Vicki with everything they’ve got. They know how to play hardball, and they will," Klein says.
“But Vicki is smart and ambitious, and she has the backing and advice of her father, Judge Reggie, who is also a ruthless and cunning operator. It will be quite a contest.”
In his biography, Klein described Joe’s bitter intra-family rivalry with Vicki in May 2008 when Ted was stricken with what was diagnosed later as terminal brain cancer.
“The hospital room throbbed with undisguised rivalry between Vicki and Joe Kennedy II. Notorious for his short temper, Joe descended on the hospital wearing his signature custom-made cowboy boots.
“Of all the members of the extended family, Joe had been the most vocal in his opposition to his Uncle Ted’s marriage to Vicki. Joe led the campaign against Vicki, openly mocking her Louisiana drawl and generally acting as though she was little more than a servant.”
Now, it appears, the nephew could be campaigning against the widow again, as they scramble for the right to pick up the fallen standard.
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