IS AMERICA CLAMORING for a Kennedy family comeback?
Not if you look at disappointing attendance figures at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. Since it opened two years ago, the institute, which is located next door to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, has drawn about 62,000 visitors, half the number projected.
Boosters blame turnout problems on an out-of-the-way location at Columbia Point in Dorchester and the public’s generally low opinion of Congress. But there are also fewer people alive with a personal connection to the Kennedy era, and not all the living hold Ted Kennedy or the extended Kennedy clan in such high esteem. Besides, the Kennedy bond was always strongest in Massachusetts, where JFK’s story inspired a scary succession of Massachusetts politicians to look in the mirror and see a president. The rest of the country disagreed.
For those over 60 who live along the Northeast Corridor, the overture from “Camelot” can still conjure up misty-eyed memories of Jack Kennedy’s New Frontier. But as a current political brand, “Kennedy” is more local than locals want to believe. Still, a “cresting” next generation of Kennedys is reportedly on the look-out for political opportunity in the age of Donald Trump.
The Kennedy name is still marketable, as demonstrated by a new two-part TV mini-series, “The Kennedys — After Camelot.” Larry Tye, author of the highly acclaimed biography, “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,” reports that interest in the Kennedys-in-politics story has drawn large book tour crowds from Ohio to Florida, as well as in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. These audiences, said Tye, are not only looking to “old Kennedys like Bobby to suggest a way out of the wilderness,” they are looking to younger Kennedys “to play Moses.”
Yet, from the Bush family to the Clintons, Americans have also expressed dynasty fatigue. Are there really enough Kennedy acolytes to carry the next generation of Kennedys over a general election finish line? In Illinois, where Chris Kennedy, the eighth of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s 11 children, is planning a 2018 bid for governor, the Globe’s Annie Linskey reports that “Kennedy” polls well, “particularly among older voters who tend to come out it in an Illinois Democratic primary.” In Connecticut, Ted Kennedy Jr., who is also considering a run for governor, has been dogged by reports in the Hartford Courant that he skirted the state’s campaign finance reform laws during his run for the state Senate.
Whether the new generation catches fire depends in large part on Representative Joe Kennedy III, who has the biggest advantage of all — a Massachusetts launch pad. Kennedy got a lot of recent attention for calling House Speaker Paul Ryan’s health care proposal an “act of malice.” But not too long ago, he preached the virtues of bipartisanship and made a point of exercising with Republican colleagues. In January, Kennedy riled up a group of Democratic activists in Newton, when he told them Democrats needed to work to understand those who voted for Trump.
Since then, he has gotten the message: Go left and loud against Trump. But in Massachusetts, there’s plenty of competition for that agenda. The entire congressional delegation is on board, not to mention Democratic leaders in the state legislature and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. A Kennedy is still a big deal here, but to break through the crowd, the ever-earnest Kennedy would have to do something gutsy, like run for governor or senator.
That would test the potency of the Kennedy name in Massachusetts. Beyond that? Well, as Ted Kennedy said, in his famous 1980 concession speech, “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”