BOSTON — It seems like old times. A Kennedy--Joseph P. Kennedy II, the eldest son of Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy--is running for Congress, and when he turned up recently in the Italian, blue-collar Democratic stronghold of East Boston, old people and young alike fawned over him like groupies at a rock concert.
One senior citizen, Joe Montalto, said people in the neighborhood had nothing against his leading opponent, state Sen. George Bachrach, except that he is not a Kennedy. "I wouldn't let a stranger in my house," Montalto said. "I don't know who the hell he (Bachrach) is. The Kennedys we know."
And now the family political team has reappeared. With vigor. Call it "Camelot, the sequel" or "New Frontier II," but a new generation of America's premier political dynasty has entered the national electoral arena.
Both Kennedy, 33, and his 35-year-old sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, are running as Democrats in House contests where their family heritage has become a central issue. A host of their six brothers and sisters and 18 cousins are out stumping for them, as are many longtime family friends and advisers. Uncle Ted, better known outside the clan as Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, also weighs in from time to time with campaign tips.
While the Kennedy name is still magic to countless numbers of Americans, however, the two Kennedys are finding that their hereditary celebrity status does not automatically translate into victory at the polls.
Townsend, a spunky attorney who mirrors the 1960s-style idealism epitomized by her father and uncle, the late President John F. Kennedy, easily won her Democratic primary battle against two weak opponents last Tuesday in a heavily Republican district in suburban Baltimore. But in November she faces a tough uphill battle to topple a feisty and popular conservative incumbent, Rep. Helen Delich Bentley.
Family's Home Turf
Brother Joe is making his stand on the family's home turf, the staunchly Democratic district represented once by John Kennedy and now by retiring House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr.
O'Neill, a power in his district, did his bit for tradition last week with a comment, scheduled for publication in today's editions of the Boston Globe, that he intends to vote for young Joe Kennedy. While not exactly a ringing endorsement, it could tip the balance in the close race that is shaping up.
But Kennedy faces a stiff challenge in Tuesday's Democratic primary from Bachrach, a liberal who has nearly erased Kennedy's once-commanding lead over a crowded field of contenders by portraying him as politically inexperienced and accusing him of abandoning the ideals espoused by his famous relations. For example, Bachrach points out, Kennedy backs the death penalty.
The attacks appear to have hit home. Polls last spring gave Kennedy a whopping 3-1 lead over his closest rivals, but a Boston Globe survey last week showed that Bachrach, a cocky son of Austrian Jewish immigrants, trailed Kennedy by a statistically insignificant 39% to 34%.
Academics and Yuppies
Smelling blood, Bachrach assailed Kennedy for backing President Reagan's bombing raid on Libya last April. The move was aimed at the academics and yuppies who in recent years have flocked to parts of the district--home of 10 universities including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--and displaced many old, ethnic, working-class families that formed the backbone of traditional Kennedy devotion.
But the strategy may have backfired by giving Kennedy a chance to disprove charges that he was intellectually fuzzy, an inarticulate speaker trying to duck a toe-to-toe confrontation with the more glib Bachrach.
Bachrach corralled Kennedy in a high school auditorium last Monday and accused him of displaying "a belligerence that will someday lead this country to war." He charged that recent Arab terrorist incidents proved the Libyan raid was ineffective.
Coolly Signs Autographs
Kennedy shot back as he coolly signed autographs: "George, you're trying to make political hay out of the innocent lives of people."
Kennedy will spend $1 million on his Democratic primary campaign, according to Chuck McDermott, his longtime friend and campaign manager. "It's a family business of sorts," observed Democratic state Rep. William Galvin, who quit the race for O'Neill's House seat when Kennedy got in.
Bachrach's primary budget, by contrast, is about $700,000, and another dropout, state Rep. Tom Vallely, spent $425,000 before deciding he could not win. "I used to campaign next to Kennedy," Vallely said, "and go home and tell my wife, 'You'd think Prince Charles was there.' He has star quality."
As a youth, Kennedy once seemed cut from the same star-crossed, reckless mold that plagued his Uncle Ted. As a teen-ager, he was involved in a driving accident that permanently disabled one of his passengers.
Heating Oil for Poor