Could it have been that hard-hitting editor's letter by John F. Kennedy Jr. in the latest issue of George? "Yes, I guess I am a poster boy for bad behavior," Joe Kennedy said sadly as he pondered the picture of his cousin John Jr.'s buffed and scantily clad bod. And with that, he withdrew from the 1998 race for governor in Massachusetts.
Of Robert Kennedy's 10 surviving children, Joseph P. Kennedy II is probably the toughest and most ambitious, in some ways an embodiment of what Kennedy haters love to hate about his family. Bullying as a child, a poor student cosseted through school, he was the one whose wild years included a reckless Jeep ride, himself at the wheel, that left a teenage girl paralyzed. Family clout got him off easy, set him up in business, then bought him his congressional seat. Yet his stubbornness had come to serve him well, getting him through early gaffes to build a solid record.
When the one-two punch of Kennedy controversies buffeted Boston last spring--the book by his ex-wife about Joe's campaign to gain an annulment of their marriage, and his brother Michael's sordid affair with a teenage baby sitter--Joe seemed grimly ready to ride them out; the election, after all, was 18 months away. The irony of Thursday's announcement is that he appeared to have done just that. The book was history. The D.A.'s investigation into the baby sitter scandal had fizzled out. For a Kennedy not given to soul-searching, why quit now?
Let's start with a conspiracy theory, for what it's worth. In my reporting on the scandals for Vanity Fair, it became clear that behind the barrage of Kennedy-bashing in the Boston press, a bizarre vendetta was being enacted. The initial story April 25 reported that Michael Kennedy might have committed a felony by sleeping with his children's baby sitter when she was as young as 14. The baby sitter's family professed to abhor the prospect of an investigation for the psychic damage it would do their daughter. Yet the family's name was used, suggesting they'd sanctioned the story, and in the weeks that followed, the girl's father appeared to be a source, through his lawyers, for leak after damaging leak. He had every right to be angry, but in his seeming campaign to smear both Michael and Joe, how angry was too angry?
The D.A.'s eventual decision to drop the investigation for lack of evidence because the baby sitter wouldn't cooperate might have meant what her family said it did: Maybe she had been feloniously underage, but she wanted to let the matter drop. But it's not hard to imagine a still-wrathful father holding on to his last card: a promise to keep the scandal alive enough to be a lead weight on Joe's campaign.
The Boston papers have to be credited in part with dashing Joe's dreams. They piled it on, brutally gleeful at every chance for a follow-up story. Or so it seemed to this out-of-towner. But if the papers were shaping opinion, they were reflecting it, too. Both brothers appeared to have treated women badly, and fairly or not, after Chappaquiddick and Palm Beach, voters in Massachusetts, especially women, had had enough. Their anger came through in polls, and it wasn't the sort that time would ease. Ask almost any Democratic, college-educated, middle- and upper-class woman of a Boston suburb how she felt, and you heard the same word: enough.
So why does the news leave me feeling sorry for Joe? Perhaps because the Kennedy attitude toward women was so deeply, pathologically ingrained by the grandfather for whom Joe was named that it must still seem, on some not quite conscious level, normal. Perhaps because Joe, like his siblings, had to endure a father's murder and the fracturing of a family too large for any mother to tend as a single parent.
Mostly, I think I feel sentimental: for the seeming end of a political dynasty that began nearly a century ago with the scrappy ascension of "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald to mayor of Boston. Joe will stay in Congress, his cousin Patrick, too, but the sigh one hears in Massachusetts today is the sound of a legacy humbled.