As much as the United States abhors a political aristocracy — the American dream, after all, lauds the rags-to-riches mythos, and the country takes a certain pride in Barack Obama’s own unlikely presidential story — this republic can’t shake the habit of political dynasties. We build mythologies around them and romantic notions of how good life can be in fabled New Camelot. No other house represents this better than the Kennedys of Massachusetts. No matter how deeply Republican a streak New England carries, we will always have a soft spot for our very own Irish nobility.
Now that the fiery Congressman Barney Frank has decided to call time on a 30-year spell in Congress, the newly-redrawn Massachusetts 4th District is up for grabs. It was only a matter of time before a Kennedy — and there are still quite a few these days — threw his hat into the ring. And that Kennedy is Joseph III, a hitherto nationally-unknown 31-year-old lawyer. Even though the district is now shorn of bluedog stronghold New Bedford, there is a tacit understanding amongst the politicos in the state that this will once again be Kennedy country.
The inevitability has been echoed in the local media. Republicans — who thought that they had a chance to break Frank’s stranglehold — are toning down their game. There are snide, resigned comments about Joe III’s upcoming "coronation." There has, after all, been a continuous succession of Kennedys in Washington — from John Fitzgerald’s congressional run in 1947 until Patrick’s retirement in 2011 — for 64 years, more than a quarter of this country’s history. For much of living memory, the Kennedys have been a political institution.
The task now falls to Joe. The political omens seem remarkably auspicious for him. The 4th District should be unusually kind to a Kennedy. Now redrawn, the 4th is a straight north-south axis from Brookline to Fall River, both sites of Kennedy family shrines. Affluent Brookline boasts the house where JFK was born, now a rather unremarkable national historical monument and poignant reminder of the Kennedys’ deep roots in Boston. At Fall River is the USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., Joe III’s namesake and war hero ancestor. There may be no such thing as a fated outcome in politics but the signs are definitely convincing — this is Joe III’s district to lose.
The Kennedys probably wield the most name recognition and political capital of any single dynasty in this country. They don’t run for office unless they’re absolutely sure they’ll win. In political circles, the Kennedys are notoriously shy of competing in primaries if there is even a chance of an upset — Bobby famously avoided a race with LBJ — and are highly risk averse to tarnishing the family name with something as ignominious as a defeat. The state’s Democrats will probably fall into line and anoint the chosen Kennedy while the Republicans, despite what Scott Brown’s well-oiled grassroots campaign has shown, should focus their best and brightest in a more manageable district.
2012 will also be just as much a local race as it is a national referendum on President Barack Obama. And while Obama might flag in the swing states, he enjoys a comfortably wide margin of support in deeply blue Massachusetts. Hanging on to another name won’t hurt Joe’s chances.
Of course, the big question is: Who exactly is Joseph Kennedy III? Armed with little to his name but his name, Joe III will probably hope to coast to victory on Kennedy name recognition. By and large, Kennedys have done right by Massachusetts and have held historic landslide victories over half-hearted Republican challenges.
Joe III also bears a striking professional resemblance to the most successful Kennedy scion. At the age of 30, JFK won a vacated seat held by a long-serving Democrat. Harvard-educated and with little practical political experience, he nonetheless beat a way to power. Joe III probably doesn’t share JFK’s charisma but perhaps the stars will favor this Kennedy as well.
And as much as we pretend it doesn’t affect us, God help us, election after election has proven that we invariably love the Kennedys in New England.
Photo Credit: dbking