Who’s Going to Lick a Kennedy?

Whenever a Kennedy decides that it’s time to use the family name to claim a political office for which there are numerous better-prepared aspirants, a taunt aimed at Ted Kennedy back in 1962, when the 30-year-old presidential brother ran with absolutely no qualifications for the U.S. Senate, comes to mind.

“Teddy,” Massachusetts Attorney General Eddie McCormack, Mr. Kennedy’s opponent in that year’s Democratic primary, said, “if your name was Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a farce.”

Mr. McCormack, himself a political legacy (but at least a somewhat accomplished one), was right. As of ’62, Mr. Kennedy had been kicked out of Harvard for cheating and then readmitted, served two years in the Army — stationed in Paris — taken the title of “campaign manager” for his brother John’s can’t-miss Senate re-election bid and graduated from law school.

But his last name was all that mattered. When J.F.K. was elected president in 1960, he used his pull to compel Massachusetts Governor Foster Furcolo to appoint a Kennedy-approved caretaker to his Senate seat for two years – until ‘62, when Ted would at last be old enough to run for the seat himself. In the ’62 primary, Mr. Kennedy beat Mr. McCormack two-to-one.

So it often goes for anyone lucky enough to swim in Rose and Joe’s gene pool.

It’s true that Ted Kennedy has gone on to distinguish himself in the Senate, particularly in the latter half of his tenure, when he cleaned up his personal life and gave up dreaming of the White House. But was the 1962 result the right one? Who’s to say Eddie McCormack, still kicking at 85, wouldn’t have gone on to a decorated legislative career himself?

It’s happening again now. 51-year-old Caroline Kennedy, daughter of J.F.K., has decided she wants to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate. Her qualifications? Well, let’s just say it’d be hard for someone with the same resume, minus those magic seven letters at the top, to get David Paterson, who will choose Mrs. Clinton’s successor, on the phone. But since she is a Kennedy, she may be the front-runner.

We’ve been down this road so many times before.

Like in 1986, when House Speaker Tip O’Neill decided it was time to retire. Since he’d been in office for 34 years, there was a line of about two dozen eager and accomplished local officials in Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, Mass. ready to take the torch from him. But they were all out luck: Joseph P. Kennedy II, R.F.K.’s 33-year-old kid, wanted a seat in Congress – and he’d just bought a house in the district.

As O’Neill himself put it back then: “This is Kennedy territory. Nobody’s going to lick a Kennedy.”

A few brave souls tried, but Joe had his family connections. Dick Goodwin helped with speeches and strategies. Five Boston Celtics, including Kevin McHale and Bill Walton, offered endorsements. Family members and friends raised over a million bucks – a lot back then. O’Neill was even recruited for a last-minute T.V. ad. Surprise, surprise – Joe Kennedy licked his nearest primary foe by 20 points and a 12-year congressional career was launched.

But that has nothing on what went down in 1994 in Rhode Island, when Ted’s 27-year-old son Patrick – a.k.a. “Patches” – decided it was his turn to run for Congress. The primary was nothing, but he ran into some unexpected trouble in the general election, mainly because his Republican opponent was everything he wasn’t.

Dr. Kevin Vigilante had paid his own way through Cornell and Johns Hopkins by working in a steel mill and had devoted his career to doing good things for people in unfortunate circumstances. He opened an inner-city clinic to treat women with H.I.V., volunteered in Romania (at his own expense) to work with handicapped orphans and worked in Rhode Island with rape and sexual abuse victims.

The contrast of Dr. Vigilante’s inspiring story and Patches Kennedy’s overbearing entitlement caught the public’s attention – and even attracted filmmaker Josh Seftel, who made “Taking on the Kennedys” about the campaign. The race seemed close, for a while.

But Patches still had the name, no small matter in a state where 60 percent of the population is Catholic, and he still had his family connections. Tony Bennett was shipped in for a special performance. John-John, Caroline and Maria Shriver stumped for him. Money poured in – and was used to fund television ads that amounted to ugly smears against Dr. Vigilante. Who do you suppose ended up winning?

Now, Patches is in line to move up to the Senate the next time there’s an opening – possibly after next year’s mid-terms, if Jack Reed is then tapped to replace Robert Gates as defense secretary. And Joe Kennedy is the front-runner to replace his Uncle Ted, now facing an unfortunate battle with cancer, in the Senate – unless Ted’s wife Vicki decides she wants the seat.

If Caroline Kennedy goes to the Senate, she may end up surrounded by family. That’s how it goes when you’re a Kennedy.

Who’s Going to Lick a Kennedy?