WHEN NEOPHYTE Ted Kennedy ran for the Senate in 1962, he squared up against Massachusetts Attorney General Edward J. McCormack who warned that “the office of United States senator should be merited, and not inherited.“ Ted’s candidacy should be a “joke,’’ McCormack argued, “but nobody’s laughing because his name is not Edward Moore. It’s Edward Moore Kennedy.’’
Kennedy beat the McCormack by a margin of 2 to 1.
Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil. Joe Kennedy III has just jumped into the race to succeed Barney Frank and, let’s face it, the contest is over. Indeed, it never began. Fifty years later - a half century! - and the Bay State’s extraordinary, axiomatic, and unquestioning loyalty to the Kennedy name seems not to have wavered a bit.
Kennedy seems, by all accounts, a nice enough 31-year-old. Despite being raised in a famous family, he’s lived a largely anonymous life, working for the past several years as an assistant district attorney. Kennedy’s career to date is not an unusual profile for someone who might want to try his hands at politics. But it’s not the profile of a prohibitive favorite.
Yet - absent the extraordinary - he’ll win, just like his great uncle, by a margin of 2 to 1.
Really. A UMass Lowell/Boston Herald poll conducted last week - before Kennedy’s formal announcement - put the tenderfoot ahead of Republican Sean Bielat by that margin. Boston city councilor Mike Ross, who toyed with the idea of moving back to his hometown of Newton to enter the Democratic primary, figured out the turf very quickly. Once Kennedy started nosing about, Ross smartly exited - churlishly claiming his reason was Congress was “dysfunctional and broken’’ (Really? Worse than the City Council?). Everyone else thinking about the race should consider following his lead.
And never mind the blather from Joe Kennedy that the race goes to the one “who goes out and earns it.’’ The guy is already ahead before anyone knows about his issues, priorities or other critical topics such as (and I’ll never forgive Bill Clinton for answering this one) boxers or briefs. He may work hard, but that won’t be why he’ll win.
He’ll win, as we all know, because of his last name.
By some lights, one can understand the pragmatic calculus of voters 50 years ago who gave Ted the nod. His brother was, after all, the president. Hence, Ted’s campaign slogan, “He Can Do More for Massachusetts.’’
But that Kennedy pull doesn’t do much in Washington anymore. Indeed, purely pragmatic politics would argue for Massachusetts electing Republicans, where they can have far more influence in a House of Representatives that almost certainly will be controlled by the GOP.
So why does that Kennedy name still matter? Perhaps it’s nostalgia for the days of Camelot and a yearning for its recreation. Perhaps too we’ve never unequivocally embraced our 1776 rejection of royalty. We still swoon when British royalty wed or visit our shores, and the Kennedys are a reasonable simulacrum.
But coupled with that, there is this: Kennedys are a known commodity. When Joe likely gets elected next November, while his last name may be paramount, his first name will be irrelevant. He could be any of the numerous members of the family, all of whom would get the same immediate attention from the electorate. That’s because, even though we supposedly know nothing about Joe Kennedy III, in truth, we know everything we need to know. We know how the family thinks and how the family thinks is how Joe will think.
The Kennedys not only inherit wealth and good hair, they also inherit a sense of public service and shared values. There’s no worry that Joe will turn out to be a conservative. No one believes that he’ll oppose abortion rights or somehow considers the poor best off left fending for themselves. Doubtless he’ll support national health care, just as he’ll advocate for taxing the wealthy.
When we elect the man, we’ll get the clan.
It’s been 14 months since a Kennedy last held national public office. It’ll be good to see one back again, perhaps the first of many. Who knows? Maybe the third generation can match the first.
Originally published in the Boston Globe on February 17, 2012.