Goodbye to the Kennedys

Good riddance to a dynasty. Let's remember what we've lost.

To be honest, I was one of the few on the left who couldn’t get caught up too much in the umbrage Ed Markey was supposed to take in Joseph Kennedy III’s failed primary challenge. Markey, a canny operator who has been in elected office almost 50 years, reinvented himself as a grassroots progressive hero after co-sponsoring the Green New Deal resolution with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, thus obscuring past sins that should have, in a just world, ruined countless political careers, like voting for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. No, the Green New Deal does not cancel out aiding and abetting the immolation of the Middle East and the creation of a pervasive national security state that has outlasted George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Kennedy, 39 to Markey’s 74, was not so much a corporatist devil but a conventional liberal who would likely vote almost the same way as Markey if he ever arrived in the Senate, taking up most popular left causes and serving his state no differently than other old lions like John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, his great-uncle. Kennedy, in his defense, wasn’t even one of the bad ones, an allegedly hard-working law student who engaged in no flagrant extramarital affairs, never apprenticed for a right-wing demagogue, or killed anyone through profound and insidious negligence. Joe Kennedy’s greatest sin, perhaps, was having no rationale for a Senate campaign other than being a young, good-looking Kennedy who was only supposed to dwell in the House for so long before ripping a Senate seat away from a career politician who, until recently, had no real following at all. There is a reason, I suspect, Bernie Sanders of all people declined to endorse Markey’s re-election campaign.

I don’t mean to say Markey and Kennedy were entirely alike. For Markey’s failings on foreign policy, there is his admirable record on combating climate change and standing up to Wall Street, particularly his prescient opposition to deregulation. Markey supports Medicare for All and Kennedy does not; that is a tangible difference in policy vision. Unlike Kennedy, Markey is now appreciative and even beholden to the ascendant progressive movement, which is ultimately for the better. Let him be afraid that every six years the young activists and socialists will come for his seat if he doesn’t play nice. Let Kennedy retreat from Congress, no doubt resentful of Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement, neither of which mattered at all as recently as three years ago. Democratic socialists probably do not need another Ritchie Torres, a 32-year-old congressman-to-be who is deeply wary of the Democratic Socialists America and the Working Families Party after neither supported his campaign, and who continues to evolve into a belligerent Israel hawk. Torres is intelligent and savvy enough to be a thorn in the side of the young left for some time.

Joe Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy’s grandson, is the first Kennedy to ever lose statewide in Massachusetts, as has been exhaustively pointed out. In retrospect, it will be regarded as one of the more puzzling Senate primaries in recent times. Kennedy, at 39, could have easily waited in the House another decade or even less until Elizabeth Warren or Markey, both in their 70s, stepped aside. If Joe Biden meanders his way to the White House, he may even be smart enough to make Warren a cabinet secretary. Some have reported that Kennedy was afraid of ending up in a primary with Ayanna Pressley, a charismatic card-carrying Squad member, but if this is the case, than it speaks rather poorly of Kennedy’s political instincts. Even in defeat, he managed to win 45 percent of the vote statewide. In a crowded primary against the likes of Pressley, Seth Moulton, and others he would have a decent chance. Some think he may run for Massachusetts attorney general if the post opens up. You can only keep a Kennedy down for so long.

Still, his loss undeniably marks the end of an era. We should be grateful. For nearly a century, some Kennedy has been greatly involved in public life, not always to the benefit of the United States of America. The patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, was a self-made millionaire and raging anti-Semite who admired the governance of Adolf Hitler. Kennedy was obsessed with using his wealth to bolster the political careers of his children. His first son, Joseph Jr., was supposed to become president of the United States, beginning his career by running for Congress in 1946. Like his heinous father, Joe Jr. had kind words for Hitler, praising his sterilization program as a “a great thing” that “will do away with many of the disgusting specimens of men.” Young Kennedy was killed in the air during his military service when an unmanned, explosive-laden airplane detonated prematurely. Dead at 29, his destiny was quickly hustled to his less impressive younger brother, John. At Joe Sr.’s urging, Congressman James Michael Curley vacated his seat to become mayor of Boston. Joe Sr. moved John into the district, bankrolled his campaign, and away he went, winning with ease.

John F. Kennedy is one of those mid-20th century icons who doesn’t hold up well under any significant scrutiny. An embodiment of TV’s original golden age, when politics oddly wasn’t any more substantive than what we have on offer today—if anything, I’d argue that for all the absurdities of the Trumpian 2010s, many of the political figures who rose to national prominence on the Democratic side, like Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, exhibited far more substance than JFK—Kennedy was a lazy legislator who, thanks to his rich father, always believed he would end up in the White House. Much of his origin story was ludicrous. He won a Pulitzer Prize for a book he never wrote. His valor in World War II may have been the result of his own limited ability to pilot a boat. Since he was president for less than one term before being assassinated in 1963, Kennedy accomplished relatively little. He was, in the apt assessment of Kennedy adjacent Gore Vidal, a lousy president. His Bay of Pigs invasion was an utter disaster. His did not display the ambition on civil rights and social programs that would characterize the legacy of his successor, Lyndon Johnson. His appeal lay not in any particular policy achievement but in his aura and attitude, of vigor and forward progress. The first president born in the 20th century, Kennedy was representative of the vague idea of youth, standing alone, as a positive virtue. This was to be a Baby Boomer fetish for some time. One admirable development of the politically-active Millenial and Zoomer set is their irreverence for youth. They flocked to the senior citizen Markey to preserve him against a Kennedy in Massachusetts, an unthinkable act for an earlier generation. Another senior, the democratic socialist Sanders, is their lodestar. The vapidity of a JFK, well-dressed and well-tanned and grinning from the cover of a national magazine, holds no appeal.

Joe III’s grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy, could be as venal as his brother. He launched his career working for Senator Joseph McCarthy, the savage and unhinged redbaiter who became synonymous with his career-ruining witch hunts. McCarthy operated in a period that was disastrous for the American left, with every push for greater safety net programs or civil rights linked to Soviet Communism. Young Bobby, like his father, knew which side he wanted to be on, and joined up as McCarthy’s assistant counsel of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Bobby was as alarmed by the alleged Communist infiltration of American government as McCarthy was, warning about a “serious internal security threat to the United States.” To him, “Joe McCarthy seemed to be the only one who was doing anything about it.” The demagogue McCarthy was, naturally, an old friend of Bobby’s father. Seeking his father’s approval and drawn to McCarthy’s railings against Communism, Bobby regarded the Wisconsin senator as not only a mentor but a friend, and remained loyal to him until he died in 1957. “Joe’s methods may be a little rough,” Bobby once told a pair of journalists, “but, after all, his goal is to expose Communists in government, and that’s a worthy goal. So why are you reporters so critical of his methods?” Bobby stayed with McCarthy a brief while, not departing over any moral objections to the Wisconsin senator’s methods but leaving simply because he knew that he would never get the desired promotion he wanted, blocked by a deeply ambitious and sadistic young lawyer named Roy Cohn, who would later mentor another son of privilege, Donald Trump. Bobby dodged McCarthy’s downfall and left for New York to reinvent himself as a liberal hero. Barely spending any time in New York before his 1964 Senate election, Kennedy did to a moderate, pro-civil rights Republican named Kenneth Keating what his grandson, Joe, had hoped to do against Ed Markey: retire him swiftly. Unfortunately for Joe III, far fewer people have reverence for the Kennedys in 2020.

One of the stranger blind spots of the iconic, left-leaning journalists of New York was their unabashed reverence for Robert F. Kennedy. Understandably, Kennedy had embraced civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movement, emerging as a strong Democrat to take on Richard Nixon in 1968 before his assassination. But the RFK idolatry seemed particularly strange in light of how he began his political career. Pete Hamill once begged Bobby to run for president. Jack Newfield was deeply involved with Bobby’s presidential campaign. It seems harder to imagine that a politician in today’s time could grow into a liberal hero after apprenticing for the Trump of their generation. A name and a legacy wouldn’t be enough to erase such sins in the internet age. It was, however, in the 1960s, especially following JFK’s martyrdom. Joe Kennedy III will leave office at 40, wishing he had been born 40 years earlier, when a Kennedy merely had to show up for anointment and the journalists were breathless on ascension day. What a time it was, and what a time it will never be again.