December 24, 1979 12:00 PM

Staying sober is difficult,” Joan Kennedy says, sipping a diet ginger ale. “But I’m sober today, and that’s all that matters. I’m working on my recovery a day at a time.” There have been reports of backsliding. How long has she been sober? “I’m not saying, but for me it’s been a long time.”

A member of Alcoholics Anonymous, Joan Kennedy goes to meetings “often.” Once a week she drives to McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. for group therapy, and also once a week she sees her psychiatrist.

Until this month the 43-year-old wife of President Carter’s challenger moved unobtrusively around Boston, working on her master’s degree in education at Lesley College. Sometimes she was recognized. “People either didn’t bother me,” she recalls, “or they would say a quick ‘Hi, we’re all for you.’ ” Now Joan has gone public to support her husband’s campaign.

“Yes,” she says of Ted, “I still love him.” As for those persistent stories about his womanizing, she offers a gallant defense: “All the rumors I’ve heard are old ones. I didn’t believe them then. There haven’t been any for one or two years. They’re certainly not worth talking about now. It’s old news.”

Playing enthusiastic candidate’s wife, some claim, is Joan’s most skillful acting job since she made TV commercials for Coca-Cola and Revlon 20 years ago. In 1958 the Bronxville debutante married the young playboy whose millionaire father was powerful Joe Kennedy and whose big brothers would become legends. John and Bobby and their families lived Camelot. Joan and Ted suffered Chappaquiddick and the amputation of their son’s leg because of bone cancer. Not surprisingly, Joan fell apart; sanitariums didn’t help. Finally she left their McLean, Va. home altogether and established herself in a Boston apartment under her maiden name, Bennett.

The ingenue look has given way to a woman’s face, handsome, but etched by the hard times. “Oh, my God, no,” she laughs, “I have not had cosmetic surgery.” The woman who said 17 years ago as she arrived in Washington, “I’m really so lucky—not every girl has a chance to be so much a part of what her husband is doing,” now says the state of that marriage “is too private a question to answer.” She does not wear a wedding ring.

During a long weekend together on the Cape last July, “Ted asked me if I would think about his running and let him know how I felt by Labor Day. I soul-searched all summer and concluded I could maintain my sobriety throughout a campaign. I’m happy with the decision. Ted and the kids love me. I’m almost a little scared that things are so good now.”

If Kennedy wins, Joan will live in the White House (and would go to AA and see a psychiatrist if necessary, she says). Why move in if she hasn’t shared a roof with her husband on a regular basis for two years? “I don’t see what I have to reconcile,” she replies. “I didn’t leave Washington or Ted Kennedy. I came up here to get help. The speculations and rumors were less important than doing all I could do to get well. Talk wasn’t important then, and it isn’t important now.”

You May Like