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The Haunting of Joe Kennedy III

Can the political scion secure a place in Washington’s firmament before his last name becomes obsolete?

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Much of the public discussion about Tuesday’s Democratic Senate primary in Massachusetts has focused on an unusual question: Why is four-term Congressman Joe Kennedy III attempting to unseat Senator Ed Markey, a local fixture whose uniformly liberal views offer almost no contrast with his own?

This is a line of inquiry we rarely explore in campaign journalism. If you assume that political power is a valuableand perhaps even fun!form of influence, it makes sense that politicians would seek to attain it for its own sake. They are all ambitious, no matter what they may say, and with its parliamentary arcana and adorable hideaways, the U.S. Senate probably offers a safer outlet for their competitive drives than a return to illicit dueling.

Few pondered why then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker came after Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg in 2013, even as the 89-year-old incumbent was expected to announce his retirement. Nor was anyone surprised when Mississippi legislator and Confederate flag enthusiast Chris McDaniel narrowly missed taking down Senator Thad Cochrane that same cycle. Politics, they say, is the art of the possible, and if it’s possible to shovel some geezer’s bones into the charnel pit a few years ahead of schedule, you do it.

“Ah,” the reader counters. “But these men were not Kennedys!”

That’s true enough. The Kennedys still rank foremost among American political brands, vastly more exciting than the Bushes and several cuts above your Udalls, Tafts, and Cuomos. As the dynasty’s square-jawed custodian, Joe III was free to wait for a clearer shot at statewide office; indeed, such an opportunity might arrive with the passage of just a few months, should Elizabeth Warren join a potential Biden Cabinet. The congressman’s built-in advantages of fundraising and name recognition won’t dissipate by 2026, though the stench of his overeagerness will.

But there is no guarantee that the future offers better odds than the present. Markey and Warren are both active legislators who show no inclination toward retirement. Governor Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican, is not so much admired in Massachusetts as he is lustily worshipped. Most observers believe that challenging Baker in 2022 would be a harder road than defeating Markey today.

Perhaps the least appreciated player is freshman Representative Ayanna Pressley, who has risen to Kennedy-like celebrity among progressive activists over the last few years. Massachusetts has always punched above its weight in producing national political figures (remember that Warren was one of four locals who ran for president this cycle), and Pressley is destined for statewide office at some point in the future. Kennedy would clearly prefer to establish himself as the Democratic Party’s future before she gets the chance to squeeze past him.

But you have to put aside the political calculus to arrive at the true rationale for Kennedy’s run, which is no different from that of his various forebears’. Why is not a question you pose to a Kennedyit’s certainly not a question they ask themselves. Somewhat famously, Joe’s great-uncle Ted couldn’t say why he decided to challenge President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980, instead saluting our great natural resources in a country ramble of a response that kneecapped his bid before it even began.

Why? For three-quarters of a century, Kennedys have run because they could win. In 1952, backed by little more than his reputation as a war hero and a fortune staked by his parvenu father, 35-year-old John F. Kennedy swiped a Senate seat from Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, himself a wealthy combat veteran. Dislodging the Lodges, the original first family of Massachusetts, bestowed national prominence on the future president long before he’d achieved anything of significance.

Still, JFK’s pre-Senate résumé made him look like Henry Clay compared with the Kennedys who followed. In 1962, Ted inherited his brother’s former seat with no credentials to speak of; one rival correctly alleged, before losing the Democratic primary by more than 2 to 1, that if Ted’s name were Edward Moore, “[his] candidacy would be a joke.” Bobby became U.S. attorney general through nepotism and New York senator through carpetbagging.

The sons of both men were later elected to Congress, adding filial codicils to what had been a fraternal contract. Only poor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Bobby’s daughter, chose the long route to power, serving two humble terms as Maryland’s lieutenant governor before losing a close run for governor. It must have all felt rather unfair.

Whatever they accomplished in officeTed was one of the most productive lawmakers of the twentieth century, while his brothers were of course robbed of the chance to fulfill their own potentialthe clan’s major cultural feat was to rescue voters from the drab indignity of politics without smiling, gifted millionaires. Even their name was regal, a kind of onomatopoeia for the feeling of being governed by one so handsome.

Consider that Camelot was, in reality, an interregnum between the progressive reforms of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Yet it is still remembered as the high-water mark of American liberalism, and JFK as the ur-Democrat to be emulated forever after: young, attractive, cerebral. Bill Clinton, the articulate Rhodes Scholar, was a Kennedy variant, and his photographed handshake with JFK became a totem linking the party of the 1960s with that of the ’90s. Barack Obama fit the template in 2008, and with the ceaseless evocation of his Irish ancestry and personal grief, Joe Biden has positioned himself as Kennedy cousin from the long-lost Scranton line. As long as there is demand for Kennedys and pseudo-Kennedys in Democratic politics, they will continue to emerge.

The question, much more than why this particular Kennedy is doing what his father and grandfather both did, is when that demand will finally be extinguished. Dispiriting news came from the frontier in 2018, when nonprofit executive Chris Kennedy finished third in Illinois’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. Even within the New England heartland, Connecticut’s Ted Kennedy Jr. backed out of his own statewide bid in a display of distinctly un-Kennedy-like diffidence.

Those results are dark omens but perhaps not as foreboding as the oft-asked question of Why would Joe run? To return to the young Kennedy’s likely future rival: Ayanna Pressley was seldom asked for a justification of her successful challenge against Democratic Representative Michael Capuano in 2018, in spite of the fact that virtually no daylight existed between their (very progressive) political positions. Boston liberals enthusiastically supported her campaign anyway, inevitably mindful of Pressley’s historic status as the first African American woman elected to Congress in state history.

What has become clear is that, even as Democrats are moving toward the liberal philosophy that was historically embodied by their “Kennedy wing,” they are also revising their archetypes of leadership. Where the Kennedy family embodied youth and charisma, Democratic voters have consecutively chosen Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden as their presidential nominees. Where JFK represented a breakthrough for the acceptability of Roman Catholicism, the Democrats have increasingly become the secular party. And where Kennedys in Congress were always white and male … well, the party is moving away from that, too.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. While Joe enters Election Day as an underdog, the dynasty has tasted political defeat beforein 1980, when Ted Kennedy was bested by President Carter, and even 1956, when JFK was outmaneuvered for a place on that year’s Democratic ticket. Those disappointments were temporary. And besides, Joe isn’t the only one running this year.