There is an unintentionally hilarious line in the Boston Herald’s report Wednesday that several Democratic insiders have urged Ted Kennedy, Jr., to run for Senate if President Barack Obama picks Sen. John Kerry for Secretary of State. (Kerry would likely be easily confirmed, and a special election must be held roughly five months after his seat is vacated.) “If Teddy Jr. runs,” the Herald notes, proceeding to refer to Kennedy’s late father, “it will be the first time the Edward M. Kennedy name has been on the ballot since the liberal lion last ran in 2006.” Seven years—more than a full Senate term—without someone of the same name running for the same office! Imagine that sentence being written about you, or about any other name and office (except “George Bush” and the presidency, of course).
But being a Kennedy in Massachusetts means being expected to run for office—to wit, congressman-elect Joe Kennedy III—and it means that your running is expected to “clear the Democratic field” in anticipation of a race against Sen. Scott Brown, the outgoing Republican whom senator-elect Elizabeth Warren defeated last month. It means being expected to run even if you previously enjoyed a happy, prosperous, and largely private life, as Kennedy does: The noblesse oblige that Joseph P. Kennedy originally instilled in his nine children, including Kennedy’s father, practically demands it. The ensuing drama, should this decidedly un-dramatic person choose public life, would concern whether he is motivated more by high-minded noblesse or just a tired sense of oblige.
Kennedy, 51, has traces of his father’s round, boyish face and even, in his short “o”s, that unmistakable Kennedy (or, for the younger set, “Diamond” Joe Quimby) accent. By all accounts, he leads a mostly private existence with his wife and two children in a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut. A lawyer, he founded and runs the Marwood Group, a Manhattan asset management firm specializing in healthcare—the Massachusetts pension board is a major client. He pokes his head out to support regional Democrats, pleasantly deflecting questions about whether he will enter the family business.
In 2009, when his father died, Kennedy adopted the role of legacy-caretaker, sitting for an interview on “60 Minutes” to humanize his father. A great politician who had more than his share of human flaws, Teddy Sr. stayed by his son’s bedside when he underwent grueling experimental treatments for a rare cancer of the cartilage during his adolescence, and insisted, after the cancer forced the amputation of his right leg, that Teddy Jr. could still live a full, happy life. The side of the son that invests so much in the Kennedy narrative—it’s the same side that recently purchased Uncle Jack’s old house at the Hyannisport compound—might choose to run for Senate despite never having held elected office because, well, it’s what Kennedys do. Which is a fine thing for a Kennedy to think, perhaps, but not a reason for others to support him.
However, Kennedy does have a track record of public service. For essentially his entire adult life, he has fought for the rights of people with disabilities (a category that includes himself, although he is quick to insist that his disability is far less disabling than most). When only in his twenties, he founded Facing the Challenge, an advocacy group. Most recently, he has agitated for the Senate to adopt the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Just this month, despite an in-person plea from wheelchair-bound former Sen. Bob Dole, the Senate failed to ratify the treaty, because enough Republicans feared its encroachment on U.S. sovereignty, including, they alleged, in the areas of homeschooling and abortion rights. Afterwards, Kennedy appeared on MSNBC’s “Hardball” alongside the most prominent advocate for the treaty in the Senate: John Kerry. What a coincidence.
The biggest political gaffe Kennedy’s father ever committed came in 1979, when he failed to convincingly answer why he wanted to be president during a televised interview. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis remarked years later, “I think there’s always been a question with Ted Kennedy: whether he wanted to do what he was doing, or was he driven into it by his sense of his family, his two brothers’ deaths, and he was sort of going through the motions and figuring he had to do it?”
Democrats ought to figure out soon if the same fundamental uncertainty is present in this Ted Kennedy. Should Brown decide to contest his third Senate election in four years, he would make a formidable opponent; he won a statewide race fewer than three years ago, and last month was defeated only when Warren rode a wave of economic populism that subsumed his politically moderate, pickup-driving image—and she still received less than 54 percent of the vote in an overwhelmingly blue state where Obama took more than 60 percent. And in contrast to Warren, Kennedy lives out of state, works in finance, and has few credentials other than the most famous surname in Massachusetts politics.
What he may have going for him, in addition to all the endorsements and money he would need, is the very thing that animated his most successful relatives: a genuine, passionate cause. At their best, JFK, RFK, and Teddy Sr. transcended their paternal inheritance of restless ambition-for-ambition’s-sake when they found their respective missions: volunteerism, civil rights, and the liberal vision of the welfare state. Disability rights, which at bottom is a defense of a class of vulnerable citizens, is a swell place to start. Hopefully Teddy Jr. will run only if he wants to do something, rather than if he just thinks he is supposed to do something. A credible sense of mission would not just make him a better senator. It would make him a better candidate.