The office of Joseph P. Kennedy II, who recently declared he was running for the congressional seat once held by his uncle, John F. Kennedy, overlooks a road named for his great-grandfather, John F. Fitzgerald. In the reception area an incoming call also summons reminiscences: “Joe,” announces the receptionist over the paging system, “Caroline on seven.”
In Massachusetts, where the Kennedys are an institution, Joe’s campaign chest will benefit from something even more valuable than family contributions. It will be lined with memories.
He is the eldest son of Robert Kennedy, and he is remembered for his walk through the funeral train that bore his father’s body from New York to Washington. He went from car to car, a stoic 15 year old, with his hand outstretched, saying, “Hi, I’m Joe Kennedy. Thanks for coming.”
Now 33, Kennedy has a wife, Sheila, 36, and twin boys, 5. He is the president of Citizens Energy Corporation, a nonprofit company founded in 1979 to bring less-expensive oil to the needy. It has grown into a multilayered public service conglomerate with sales projected at nearly $1 billion this year.
Joe Kennedy is the early favorite to win next November’s election, simply because he is a Kennedy. If that is frustrating to his opponents, it is also frustrating to his family. “In this crowd,” explains his sister Kerry, 26, referring to the entire third generation of Kennedys, all 28 of them, “you don’t get anything without working for it, earning your keep. He’s going to have to earn every vote like everyone else.”
In the campaign Joe will no doubt state emphatically, as he already has, as he was brought up to do, that he is running on his own accomplishments. The announcement of his candidacy earlier this month made no mention of family ties, only of the elderly, the struggling, the arms race.
“I don’t think there was any sense of destiny about him running,” says his brother Michael, 27, “at least not in his own mind. Obviously, growing up in this family, that question is asked of you, and obviously, our family is very interested in politics and always has been. But Joe is not interested in titles and politics as such.”
Joe rejects traditional family labels, even the most comfortable and well-worn, like liberal. That’s probably the most astonishing position a Kennedy can take, next to declaring he’s not a Catholic. Earlier this year he referred to our government as an unworkable “ball of molasses”—he later backtracked, explaining that he was just frustrated with federal bureaucrats involved in fuel aid. And to complete this un-Kennedy like train of thought, he said in his campaign announcement, “The old way of the government, taxing and spending, just won’t work any longer.”
Still, Joe is running for a seat that has been passed along from Democrat to Democrat for 43 years, from James Michael Curley to John F. Kennedy to Thomas (Tip) O’Neill, the current Speaker of the House, who is retiring next year. The Eighth Congressional District belongs to the Most Favored Democrat; it has been inherited, like a Cape Cod summer home.
The office hasn’t been promised to Joe, nor is the election a foregone conclusion, since the list of probable primary opponents includes James Roosevelt Jr., no slouch in the ancestral department himself: His grandfather was FDR. Yet when Joe made a brief appearance at a Democratic fund-raising dinner a few days after declaring for office, he was greeted as one anointed, not as one announcing.
He seemed to stand above everyone in the restaurant, a handsome man, broad like his Uncle Ted, but with finer features, like his father. His left hand kept slipping in and out of the side pocket of his suit jacket, a favorite mannerism of his Uncle Jack. Joe even left the reception like a Kennedy: He walked into the bitter New England night without an overcoat.