An overdue farewell to the Kennedy dynasty

In the end, the burden was too much for Patrick Kennedy. After spending half his life in elected office, the 42-year-old announced that he would not seek re-election for a ninth term in the House of Representatives in November.

The unmarried congressman was left utterly bereft by the death in August of his father and Capitol Hill compatriot, Senator Ted Kennedy.

Last year was the annus horribilis of the Kennedy dynasty. It also saw the death of Ted’s sister Eunice and the political humiliation of Caroline Kennedy, his niece and President John F Kennedy’s daughter, as she abandoned her unconvincing bid to be appointed Senator from New York in Hillary Clinton’s place.

Like Caroline and the diffident Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a daughter of Bobby Kennedy who lost what should have been a relatively straightforward gubernatorial race in Maryland in 2002, Patrick was deeply uncomfortable as a politician.

The Rhode Island congressman is painfully awkward, a poor public speaker and has suffered from alcoholism, bipolar disorder and addiction to prescription drugs. Apart from his surname, he is best known for crashing his Mustang into a barrier outside the Capitol at 2.45am in May 2006 and then promptly booking himself into rehab at a Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

He was in rehab again last year. Various commentators have made sterling attempts to portray the congressman as a canny inside player who toiled away on behalf of humble constituents. But the truth is perhaps closer to what the man known as "Patches" to his detractors told Young Democrats in 2003: "I don’t need Bush’s tax cut. I have never worked a f—-ing day in my life." The congressman tried to strike a statesmanlike pose in his retirement announcement – a two-minute video replete with plaintive references to his father and family, accompanied by maudlin piano music as he talked.

But he could also be extraordinarily graceless, such as when he described the candidacy of Senator Scott Brown, who captured Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat in a remarkable upset last month, as "a joke" after his victory.

Although the only reason for his surprise decision that the congressman hinted at was that "illness took the life of my most cherished mentor and confidant", Brown’s election was a joke serious enough to imperil the Kennedy re-election chances.

If Massachusetts voters could reject Martha Coakley, a candidate who had wrapped herself in the Kennedy legacy (though Patrick Kennedy did not help by publicly referring to her as "Marsha") then Rhode Island could certainly do the same.

Whatever the congressman’s reasons for leaving the field of politics, only the fiercest of Democratic partisans could argue that he will be missed.

The only reason that he ever had a political career was his surname. The same, of course, was initially true for Edward Kennedy, who inherited his brother JFK’s seat after it had been kept warm for him for two years by a Kennedy placeholder until he reached the requisite age of 30.

By the time of his death, Kennedy had achieved the status almost of living saint. Once he was diagnosed with brain cancer, it was considered unforgivably vulgar even to mention Chappaquiddick. It was at Chappaquiddick that the married Senator left his companion Mary Jo Kopechne to drown in his car as he fled the scene of a late-night accident.

The dead girl’s mother would later recount that the Senator had twice invited her and her husband to his house in Virginia. "Ted led us to believe he was going to explain what really happened. But when the time came, after plenty of small talk, he said he just couldn’t talk about it."

Ted Kennedy toiled in the Senate for decades but he could never quite erase the stain on the family name that Chappaquiddick left.

From January, there will be no Kennedy in Congress or the White House for the first time since 1947. For some that will be seen as a tragedy but perhaps it would be better viewed as a relief.

One of the greatest strengths of the United States is that there is no aristocracy and the class stratifications that can so stifle British society and dynamism are largely absent. A reason for Barack Obama’s election was that Americans were tired of the notion of dynasties, be they Bush or Clinton.

America is currently in the throes of what amounts to a rage against the political class and its complacent sense of being entitled to hold power and wield it in its own interests. If there’s one thing Patrick Kennedy can be given credit for, perhaps it is that he correctly read the national mood.

There was a curiously muted reaction to the congressman’s self-pitying announcement and it featured way down the news bulletins. It was a reflection of an unspoken sense that the Kennedy name had run its course.

Their leaving the stage was overdue.

-The Daily Telegraph

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