When Contemplating Kennedys, Yearning Goes with Imagining

Monday, February 7, 2011

"One must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them. And they become real through our envy, our devotion. It is we who give them their majesty, their power, which we ourselves could never possess. And in turn, they give some back. But they are mortal, these heroes, just as we are."
- James Salter, "A Sport and a Pastime"

There is a story from John F. Kennedy's first campaign that may be apocryphal, but that's not the same as saying it fails to convey a truth.

In 1946, at the age of 29, JFK was running for an open seat in the U.S. House, representing the old 11th Massachusetts district. He faced no less than nine opponents in the Democratic primary.

Supposedly, the campaign manager for one of the other Democrats approached Kennedy's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the self-made millionaire and former U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, with a proposal along these lines:

Look, your son is very young and he has a long and bright future in politics, but my man has been at this for years and he would like to cap his career with a term or two in Congress. You should have your son step aside for him. Jack will earn a lot of credit with the pros in the party and be able practically to walk into office next time around.

Such reasoning made no impression on the ambassador. He supposedly answered with words to this effect:

"What are you talking about? Jack is going to be elected president in 1960. For that to happen, he's going to the Congress next year."

Say what you will about old Joe Kennedy -- that he was a ruthless businessman and all that -- but you can't take this away from him: he was a visionary of historic proportions.

Without Joe Kennedy's brains, toughness, ambition and money, there would have been no President Kennedy, no Senators Ted and Robert Kennedy, no Congressmen Joseph P. Kennedy, II, and Patrick Kennedy, no (Md.) Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, et al.

If, therefore, the great-grandson and namesake of the founding father of the dynasty, Joseph P. Kennedy, III, failed to dream big dreams, there would be something wrong with him.

And if we who watched Joseph P. Kennedy, III, speak in the chamber of the Massachusetts House of Representatives on Jan. 11, 2011, failed to imagine this young (30) man one day sitting in the U.S. Capitol, there would be something wrong with us.

The thing about imagining is, it almost always leads to yearning.

Even if Joe the Third is not thinking about making his run -- and he professes to be focused now only on his job as an assistant district attorney on Cape Cod -- he cannot have been unmindful of the speculation caused by his being center stage at the Massachusetts State House for an event commemorating a major speech by his uncle the president.

Judging by the content and tone of his speech, a well-thought-out plea for a more civil political discourse in the wake of the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords in Tucson, I would say young Joe was very mindful of the keen interest in his political future.

But were he oblivious, the reactions to his Jan. 11th speech would have quickly enlightened him. It's hard to miss the meaning of a spontaneous, prolonged and enthusiastic standing ovation from the members of the Massachusetts legislature.

Then there was the glowing media coverage.

"They came to pay tribute to President Kennedy and a speech he delivered 50 years ago," wrote Boston Globe reporter Michael Levenson. "But it was another Kennedy and another speech that had Beacon Hill buzzing yesterday."

Before too long, we'll probably have an answer to the question often asked in political circles now that Patrick Kennedy has relinquished his U.S. House seat in Rhode Island and no member of the Kennedy family is holding high political office:

Who among the new crop of Kennedys will be the one to run?

But we'll have to wait maybe 50 years to see if any of them approaches the heroic status that is the dream of every leader -- and every follower, too.

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