On a balmy fall evening in 1999, Joseph P. Kennedy III, a freshman member of the Stanford University lacrosse team, waited anxiously in his dorm room for the team’s initiation ritual to begin. Like the other new players, Kennedy had no idea what was to come.
On the other side of campus, his older teammates had laid in enough beer to last the long night ahead. But for Kennedy, there was a different drink.
Knowing that Kennedy does not consume alcohol, the upperclassmen had set out a large glass of milk for him. When he arrived, Kennedy promptly downed it, and poured a chaser of the same.
“Joe drank an awful lot of milk that night,’’ recalled David Kaufman, another rookie lacrosse player and Kennedy’s senior roommate. “He kept pace with us glass for glass.’’
Kennedy’s milk consumption became legendary among his teammates and earned him the nickname “the milkman,’’ which stuck throughout his college career. Kennedy, the 31-year-old grandson of Robert F. Kennedy who surprised no one when he declared his candidacy for Congress last month, rolls his eyes and laughs at the memory, saying, “I’ve kind of tried to press the delete button on all that.’’
But Kennedy’s teetotalism provides a window into the world of a little-known figure now embarking upon a very public political race. That Kennedy does not drink is not in itself remarkable. What is telling is how others interpret that choice. Some see it as a sign of his determination to steer clear of the demons of drugs and alcohol that other family members have wrestled with - in some cases fatally. Others consider it a reflection of a singular self-confidence. Not every freshman could stand up to a team of beer-chugging athletes with a glass of milk in his hand.
Many of his classmates, however, suspected Kennedy’s abstinence was rooted in a nascent political calculus.
“We always joked that Joe was going to run for president,’’ recalled Matt Twomey, who also played on the lacrosse team. “With that last name of his and the fact that he didn’t drink, it just seemed obvious.’’
Kennedy insists it’s a lot simpler than any of that.
“It’s just a personal preference,’’ Kennedy said in an interview. “It’s really just something I have never felt an attraction to.’’
Kennedy, one of twin sons born to Sheila Rauch Kennedy and Joseph P. Kennedy II, the former congressman, doesn’t spend much time foraging in his layered family history. At least not publicly. Of his family, he declares, “It’s a huge family. It’s crazy, it’s wonderful, it’s vibrant and it’s exciting.’’ Kennedy is exceptionally polite and uses words like “darn’’ and “gosh.’’ While he waxes eloquently on his stint in the Peace Corps and his work as an assistant district attorney, he says of himself only partly in jest, “I’m pretty boring as it turns out.’’
Voters in the newly configured 4th congressional district will be the judge of that.
Kennedy is the first of his generation, a tribe of dozens of cousins many of whom do not bear the Kennedy name, to make a bid for public office. If he is successful, he could renew the luster of a somewhat tarnished family name. If he is not, he will fuel critics’ contentions that the family has exhausted its political potency. But right now people like Charlie Shapiro, a former Newton alderman attending a Democratic caucus where Kennedy appeared last month, just wish he would stand still long enough so that they can snap a picture of him.
“I don’t think it should be a cakewalk because of the name, of course,’’ Shapiro said, “But I think he is going places and I would like a photo of him.’’
It is the first day of Joe Kennedy’s campaign and the red-haired candidate is vigorously shaking hands in the packed Crivello’s Crossing restaurant in Milford, a town new to the redrawn voting district. Kennedy is talking about the need for economic justice and a fair tax code. But a lot of people would rather reminisce about his family.
A WBZ television reporter interrupts a question to tell Kennedy something: “I covered your father in Congress.’’ Another reporter pulls him aside to tell of the day in 1952 “when your uncle came to town and walked right down this street.’’ A selectman has a story about his own father campaigning with John F. Kennedy. And on it goes.
History does not just precede Joseph P. Kennedy III, it engulfs him. But it is the campaign’s mantra that he is his own man and will not rely on the family name. As Kennedy puts it, “I’m extremely proud of my family’s record of public service to Massachusetts and the nation. But it’s my name on the ballot. I will stand on my own, and I only ask the voters of the 4th district to listen to what I have to say and to make a choice.’’
It is impossible, however, to detach Kennedy or his twin brother, Matt, from their famous lineage. Born in 1980, their arrival coincided with their great-uncle Ted’s failed bid for the presidency, a campaign that both of their parents worked on. As boys they occasionally appeared on the campaign trail with their father, who served in Congress from the time they were 7 until they were 19.
“They went out a bit with me,’’ recalled Joe Kennedy II. “We’d have big sing-along events at the Cape. . . Matt and Joe would go on stage and they were just mortified about how I would go on and on.’’
But the boys also learned that the political life had a price. Joe Kennedy’s schedule as a congressman, requiring him to be in Washington, D.C. much of the week, coupled with the demands of campaigning, took its toll. When the boys were 9, their mother moved out of their Brighton home and into Cambridge. The couple divorced two years later and the boys began to live between their two homes.
For Rauch Kennedy, living with the Kennedy name was at times difficult. She says of her now adult sons that, “they quite understandably are aware that I felt overloaded about all this Kennedy stuff. They have reason to be proud of their family, but sometimes it is ridiculous.’’
And sometimes Rauch Kennedy grew impatient with it all. She tells of a time when one of the boys had a health problem and the family met with the pediatrician. The doctor peppered the child’s father with questions about his health and that of his extended family but not once did he ask about Rauch’s family, as she recalls it.
“So, I said, ‘Excuse me, is this something they can only inherit from their father?’ ’’ Rauch Kennedy said. “ ‘Because no one has asked me a single question.’ ’’
They also experienced at a young age the media fascination with all things Kennedy. Two years after their parents divorced in 1991, Joe Kennedy sought an annulment of their marriage from Catholic authorities so he could remarry in the church. Initial approval was granted, but Rauch Kennedy appealed and the decision was overturned in 2005 - all of which was vividly played out in the news media.
Both Joe and Matt, director of strategic partnerships for the US Department of Commerce, declined to discuss their parent’s divorce. But classmates at Buckingham, Browne & Nichols, the Cambridge private school that they attended at the time, recall it as a difficult period. In 1997, their sophomore year, their mother published a book about her struggle entitled “Shattered Faith - A Woman’s Struggle to Stop the Catholic Church from Annulling her Marriage.’’
“I think we all felt a lot of sympathy for them,’’ recalled Michael Ellis, a classmate who played hockey with the twins. “But neither one of them got upset with their parents that I saw. They just tried to push on through.’’
Then, as now, the boys found their greatest support in each other. They have lived remarkably parallel lives. After graduating in 1999 from BB&N where they were cocaptains of the football team, they attended Stanford University. There, they both majored in management science and engineering and played lacrosse. While Joe branched out after graduating and worked in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic for two years, he joined his brother as campaign manager of Ted Kennedy’s reelection campaign in the spring of 2006. That fall they both enrolled at Harvard University. Joe attended Law School, while Matt enrolled in the Business School. Over the past three months, they have both announced their engagements. Despite their closeness, however, let no one make a mistake about who came first. It was Matt, by eight minutes.
“Greatest eight minutes of my life,’’ Matt declares with a laugh. “It’s all been downhill from there.’’
Asked if they flipped a coin to see who would run for the 4th Congressional District seat being vacated by Barney Frank, they both say no. “This was clearly Joe’s thing,’’ said Matt Kennedy, who is acting as an adviser to his brother’s campaign. But their father says a run by Matt for a different public office sometime down the road “is not out of the possibility. He might well do that.’’
Although they have many interests in common, the Kennedy brothers are quite different. Joe is regarded as the more cerebral and earnest of the two. Matt, as their mother puts it, “goes more with his gut.’’ Matt says that Joe “is much more hard-working than I am. He likes to play by the rules. Joe made sure I never broke curfew in high school. If he was going to leave the party, he’d take me with him.’’
Stanford classmate Peter Munzig observes that “Joe is much more responsible than Matt. It’s as though Joe is the older brother of the two. Joe keeps things on track. Matt makes sure Joe has fun.’’
Joe Kennedy, who talks to his brother every day, recalls Matt being interviewed on television about why he hired him to help run their great-uncle’s reelection campaign. Matt, as Joe recounts it, explained that his brother spoke Spanish, knew the issues, “and most important, always remembered that it was two milks and one sugar.’’ Joe Kennedy’s response? “Thanks, bro. What are twins for.’’
At Stanford, Joe Kennedy swiftly emerged as a diligent student, yet one with a sense of humor. “The milkman’’ readily downed glasses of milk at the bar when his teammates jokingly ordered them for him, and was frequently the designated driver at parties. Kennedy says he never thought about a political career back then.
A goalie on the school’s lacrosse team, Kennedy was badly injured on the field in his junior year. But he continued to attend all of the practices, and assisted coach Mark Lipscomb in coaching both the Stanford team as well as a seventh-grade lacrosse team at a Palo Alto public school in the afternoons.
“Joe was really the father of the [Stanford] team,’’ recalled Lipscomb. “He was just a great role model for everybody. I called him my third coach.’’
By his senior year, Kennedy was made cocaptain of the lacrosse team, along with his brother Matt and Peter Munzig. So eager was he to excel at everything that he did, Lipscomb sometimes suggested he take it a bit easier.
“I’d say, ‘Hey, man, relax a little bit,’ ’’ Lipscomb said. “ ‘You’re 19.’ He’s a real perfectionist.’’
But Kennedy, by virtually all accounts, never flaunted his name in an effort to achieve his ambitions. Lipscomb remembers one night on the road when some players urged him to go introduce himself by name to a group of young women in a hotel lobby.
“They were saying. ‘Tell them who you are; you’ll probably score,’ ’’ said Lipscomb. “But Joe was never into that. He did not want anybody knowing he was a part of this great family.’’
Jeremiah Marble ran into the same thing when he signed up with the Peace Corps in 2004. During an orientation in Miami, a group of new volunteers were asked a host of questions about the organization - when did the Corps start? how many countries did it serve in? Marble noticed “a tall red-headed dude in the corner who knew all the answers.’’
That was Joe Kennedy, whose great-uncle, President Kennedy, founded the organization in 1961. But Marble didn’t know that Kennedy was a member of the Massachusetts political family until months later.
“The neatest thing about Joe was that even if someone was positive that he was related to the Kennedys, he would sort of deny it,’’ said Marble, now a product manager for Microsoft in Seattle. “You really had to pry it out of him.’’
Committed to the Corps
Kennedy’s time in the Corps was deeply formative and he talks about it with sweeping enthusiasm. During his two years in the Dominican Republic, he helped to organize a straggling group of local tour guides at a nature reserve called 27 Charcos, a series of magnificent natural waterfalls. When he arrived, the guides were paid a pittance for often strenuous work. Kennedy, who is fluent in Spanish, was instrumental in getting government support and outside financial backing that enabled him and the guides to transform the operation.
Just 24 when he arrived at the site with his duffel bag in hand, Kennedy and some guides admit that some locals initially regarded him askance. Kennedy was asking them to take CPR training and learn English and more, all to improve their relations with tourists. When he asked them to redo the pathways with their shovels and pick-axes, Kennedy says some “cursed the gringo,’’ as they called him, even though he was shoveling right along side of them.
“You’re asking them to make a huge investment in their future, back-breaking work,’’ says Kennedy. “And, I’m saying, yeah but trust me, you’ll get something in the future.’’
In the end, they did the work and got the promised benefit. Heriberto Lopez, president of the guide’s association, said: “Joe was very easy to work with and he has stayed in touch with us. In truth, he was a real leader and we will never forget him.’’
The guides also observed that Kennedy had an appreciation for the conditions in which the guides lived. Joe Kennedy II recalls that when he once visited his son in the Dominican Republic, he took him a high-end A2000 baseball mitt. Joe Kennedy III promptly gave the glove to a local boy. And when the elder Kennedy proudly presented his son with a propane-powered cooler to use in his house, which had no electricity, he turned it down.
“He said, ‘Dad, what are you doing,’ ’’ recalled Kennedy. “He said, ‘Lots of people come here and get themselves all kinds of things and don’t live like the people they are living with. I have come here to live with these families.’ ’’
By the time he returned home in 2006, Kennedy had decided on a legal career. While at Harvard, Kennedy spent long hours at the school’s Legal Aid Bureau, where he worked with tenants being evicted as a result of foreclosures.
At Harvard, Kennedy also worked as a technical editor of the Human Rights Journal, where he met his fiancee, Lauren Anne Birchfield, of Southern California. Kennedy and Birchfield shared a passion for running as well as human rights and were soon a regular item. Until recently, Birchfield worked as a policy representative at NARAL Pro-Choice America in Washington D.C., but is now moving to Boston and will work on Kennedy’s campaign. The campaign said that Birchfield declined to be interviewed.
Service in law
On graduating in 2009, Kennedy signed on as an assistant prosecutor in the Cape & Islands district attorney’s office. Comfortable navigating the sandy Cape roads that he had so often traveled on his way to the family compound in Hyannis, he also found the courtroom work deeply gratifying. Kennedy handled a variety of cases and quickly gained a reputation for his unassuming manner and willingness to work long hours, as well as for his skill at the “Check Your Knowledge’’ quiz game that was played daily at the lunch table. During his two years in the office, Kennedy frequently invited staffers to his family’s compound, according to those he worked with.
Kennedy says the work contributed to a deepening appreciation of the difficulties facing some members of society. In time, he says, he came to regard, “each of these cases as a problem to solve, and not a person to prosecute. . . Your job is not to just hide behind recommending a maximum sentence on every case and say, hey, I’m tough on crime. It’s to solve that problem. You’ve got a brain in there. Use it.’’
Once when he was involved in a case involving a young mother and drug addict who was being sent to jail for theft, Kennedy, trying to enrich his understanding, called Steven A. Tolman, a former state legislator who had chaired a committee on substance abuse.
“It was very disturbing to him that a mother stealing groceries for her children was going to jail rather than going into treatment,’’ recalled Tolman, now the president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.
Although Kennedy had long been interested in public service, he found himself thinking increasingly of politics in the course of his trial work. “You can see what happens when people don’t feel they have a chance,’’ he said. “You can see the ramifications of that.’’
Kennedy sought advice about a possible run from his immediate family as well as a wider circle of Kennedy relatives that included Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, his aunt and the former lieutenant governor of Maryland. But Townsend, who is also his godmother, says that the decision to run was Joe’s alone.
“That is something that is in your gut,’’ said Townsend. “It says either you want to run, or you do not. And he did.’’
In September 2011, Kennedy moved to the Middlesex district attorney’s office. Four months later, he announced to a band of reporters that he was going to leave his job in order to explore a bid for Congress. In February, he made it official.
Kennedy may downplay his last name, but it still causes a certain breathlessness on the campaign trail. When he registered to vote in Brookline last month, where he now rents an apartment, it prompted a flutter on Twitter and several news stories. When he announced his engagement in January, campaign staffers dispatched an e-mail to the media. In the second week of February, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO endorsed Kennedy for Congress. At the time, he wasn’t even a candidate.
For Kennedy’s potential opponents, such name recognition is a daunting factor. That he also has the advantage of his family’s formidable political brain trust and the deep pockets of a network of Democratic supporters nationwide has dissuaded more than a few would-be contenders. The several who remain, like Republican Sean Bielat, a businessman who surprised many two years ago with a strong run against Frank, are hoping that the more conservative cast of the newly configured district will play in their favor. And even those Democrats thrilled to see a Kennedy on the ballot again suspect that most voters will soon catch their breath and start to focus on who is the man behind the name.
“Look, some people may have a romance with the Kennedys and will be hopeful for Joe,’’ said Paul G. Kirk, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who filled Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat after his death. “Some will be dismissive and say the page of history has turned. But most people are realistic and they want to take the measure of this kid.’’
Sally Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.