After the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, the media reflexively scoured his family tree to lay odds on who would be the Next Big Kennedy. Surely someone would step up to advance the legacy of JFK, RFK, and EMK, becoming the latest on the assembly line of ravenous charisma and political ambition started by patriarch Joseph Kennedy in 1915. Then, last week, his grandson Joe said no. The eldest son of RFK turned down the chance to become the front-runner in the race to fill Uncle Teddy’s seat. For the first time in 46 years, Massachusetts won’t be represented by a Kennedy; for the first time in 57 years, since John F. Kennedy’s election to the U.S. Senate, the country won’t have a Kennedy dominating on the national political stage.
In certain ways, this is disappointing. But in other, perhaps more interesting, ways, it’s great—for both the Kennedy family and for us.
This generation of Kennedys certainly has its eccentricities. But it is also displaying a sanity that’s a distinct liability when it comes to running for modern political office. Normal people don’t want to endure ponderous subcommittee hearings, media bashings, and endless campaign-cash groveling. Last winter, when Caroline Kennedy sought the U.S. Senate seat from New York, she was criticized for her weak public-speaking skills and thin résumé. Her real problem, though, was that she didn’t want it badly enough.
Now her cousin Joe is behaving like a well-adjusted adult. He had been a six-term congressman from Massachusetts and went through an acrimonious divorce, followed by a sex scandal involving his brother and campaign manager, Michael. Months after Michael died in a 1997 skiing accident, Joe announced he was quitting politics. He’s now on a second marriage, and has two sons who’ve grown up largely out of the public eye, and his family was doing just fine without the celebrity. Joe was also smart enough to realize that if he ran for the Senate, he’d likely suffer in comparison to his uncle. He only need look at his cousin Patrick: Ted Kennedy’s younger son, a congressman from Rhode Island who is often skipped over in discussions of the family political legacy because he lacks his father’s gifts.
Elected or not, the Kennedys haven’t abandoned their public spirit. Joe is running a Massachusetts company that subsidizes heating oil for poor people. Kerry Kennedy is promoting a New York State bill to improve farmworkers’ conditions. RFK Jr. is active in environmental causes. And one of the next generation may indeed seek office in the near future: Family friends say Bobby Shriver is considering a run for California attorney general in 2010.
But just as it’s good to see a Kennedy not run for office simply because he’s supposed to, it’s healthy for our politics to get away from the frankly un-American notion of dynastic government. One small part of why Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton was that the Bushes had recently given that idea a very bad name. Even more important were Obama’s up-from-nowhere outsider roots: This is the true and sustaining mythology of this country, that anybody with talent and grit and ambition can become president. The specifics of his Kenyan-Kansan heritage and his Hawaiian-Indonesian upbringing are singular and deeply weird. But Obama’s hybrid ethnicity, his itinerant youth, and his lower-middle-class upbringing are shared by vast numbers of Americans.
Obama has brought to the Oval Office a recent, firsthand understanding of how hard it is to make it on your own in this country. The Kennedys, to their credit, continue to try to lift those less fortunate than themselves. But they deserve a break from the surnamic compulsion to run for elected office—and public life will only benefit from the torch’s being passed.