Kennedy in waiting: Joe III is ‘the real deal’

Joe Kennedy III is the teetotal young pretender who seems the clan member most likely to follow in his great-uncle’s footsteps

Joe Kennedy III greets Taoiseach Enda Kenny

Joe Kennedy III greets Taoiseach Enda Kenny

Wed, Jun 19, 2013, 01:00

It was 53 years ago, but Cliff Scott remembers it like it was yesterday. He was just a boy, and the young, dashing US senator whom everybody called Jack was shaking hands and bantering with potential voters in his small town of Marlborough, 35 miles west of Boston.

“The excitement was palpable,” Scott recalls. “I remember that the rest of us seemed like we were in black and white, and Jack Kennedy was in colour. I remember the reddish highlights in his hair. That’s how close I was to him. He was so charismatic, that even as a kid I knew he’d win.”

Jack Kennedy was running for president, and he would win, becoming the first Irish Catholic leader of the free world.

When Jack Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, a little bit of Cliff Scott died, too. JFK had represented everything that was exciting and forward-thinking in the United States.

When his brother Bobby ran for president in 1968, promising to end the war in Vietnam, Scott felt that surge of idealism again. But even before the election could be held, Bobby Kennedy was lying mortally wounded in a puddle of his own blood, on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Ted Kennedy was left, and while Scott admired him, he also sensed that the Kennedy magic was dead, too, in the grave with Jack and Bobby.

But then, two years ago, Scott saw that magic for the first time since the 1960s. As the president of the New England College of Optometry, Scott spends a lot of time in Washington, lobbying for legislation to help higher education, looking for friends in Congress.

As part of his job, he reluctantly went to a fundraiser in Washington for an aspiring congressman named Joe Kennedy III, and as soon as he shook hands with the new Kennedy standard bearer, he knew it was the real deal.

“He’s a very sincere kid,” said Scott. “He talked about public service as something that his family believed in deeply, and that he believed in deeply. He doesn’t need money. He has all the money he could ever need. But he has the idealism of his great-uncles. He has the smarts and the good looks. He even has the red hair.”

Joe Kennedy III, Bobby Kennedy’s grandson, went on to win that Massachusetts seat in Congress by a landslide. He is seen widely as the most politically astute and credible of the young Kennedys to emerge from the trauma of the 1960s, when an unpopular war and the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King jnr saw America at war with itself as much as the Viet Cong and the rest of the world.

His father, Joe Kennedy II, the son of Bobby Kennedy, was a congressman for 12 years but was frustrated by the inability of an individual US representative to make much of an impact in the byzantine world of Washington. Young Joe Kennedy seems far more patient and far more realistic about his influence, even given his political pedigree.

“I’m taking my time to learn how Washington works, how Congress works, how I can maximise my effectiveness,” he told me recently, as we talked in Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, a team whose fortunes he follows closely. “I’m in this for the long haul.”

It’s lines like that which lead some political analysts to suggest that the sky’s the limit for young Joe Kennedy. Some say he’s a natural to become a senator like his grandfather. Others point even higher.

“Please,” he says, rolling his eyes. “Let me figure out how to become an effective congressman first. I don’t want to talk about that stuff. It’s silly.”

Unlike so many of the other Kennedys, who either displayed indifference or outright hostility to a public life (or who, like Caroline Schlossberg, JFK’s daughter, withdrew from the attempt), the third generation’s Joe Kennedy seemed destined from an early age for a life of politics. One of his mentors, former congressman Bill Delahunt, spotted in him, even when he was a teenager, a maturity that others inside and outside his family lacked.

“Young Joe was focused,” said Delahunt. “While other kids were goofing off, doing what kids do, Joe knew he had to keep his nose clean if he wanted to go into the game.”

He was also conscious of cutting a different swath for himself. While generations of Kennedy men went to Harvard, young Joe Kennedy and his twin brother Matt opted for Stanford University in California.

Young Joe Kennedy does not drink alcohol. That is quite a departure for a member of a political dynasty that has had more than its share of problems with alcohol and substance abuse.

When he played lacrosse at Stanford, he would drink milk while his teammates partied with beer. His teammates nicknamed him The Milkman.

“We always joked that Joe was going to run for president,” Matt Twomey, who played lacrosse at Stanford with Kennedy, told The Boston Globe. “With that last name of his and the fact that he didn’t drink, it just seemed obvious.”

Kennedy says his teetotalism is not rooted in ambition. “It’s just a personal preference,” he said. “It’s really just something I have never felt an attraction to.”

Kennedy’s ability to be ambitious without really seeming ambitious may be as important to his political rise as his famous pedigree. He spent two years in the Dominican Republic for the Peace Corps, founded by his great-uncle, the president. Fresh out of Harvard Law School, he went to work as a prosecutor.

A newlywed, who married his Harvard sweetheart and episcopalian minister’s daughter Lauren Anne last December, Kennedy is aware of the price that a public life can exact. He and his brother were seven years old when their father was first elected to Congress. Two years later, their parents divorced and the boys were shuttled between homes.

Young Joe Kennedy seems more grounded than most. To this day, he talks to his twin brother every day. He will not let the job define him. His family defines him. And that is an identity that carries with it much privilege, but also much burden.

He seems up to the challenge.

He is the first Kennedy of his generation to run for public office.

It’s doubtful he’ll be the last.

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