Public Nuisances

Posted: Jul 21, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- I have been wondering about the latest Kennedy capitulation in Massachusetts. A Kennedy was approaching an apparently easy political win but withdrew from the race abruptly before the first baby was kissed or hand was clasped. Is this the end of the Kennedy Dynasty, at least in Massachusetts? Some months ago, as it appeared that death would claim Rep. Joe Moakley leaving Massachusetts' ninth congressional seat open, the ground shook and rumor spread that Robert Kennedy's son, Max, was preparing to claim the seat. It was his for the asking. Moakely's organization approved him. The district is blue collar and heavily Irish. It includes parts of Boston -- no Kennedy has ever lost a race in Boston. This was Kennedy Country. And as if to emphasize the point, polls within the district showed that voters favored Kennedy though they knew he had not lived in the district. Moreover, Max Kennedy is charming and genuine. He would be superb on the campaign trail, which in Massachusetts' Democratic ninth district would be short and without peril. Yet after bringing in a distinguished staff of speechwriters and fund-raisers from Uncle Teddy's organization, along with strategists from the Gore campaign, Max folded his campaign in June. He had plenty of money, local political support and the most famous political name in Boston. Like his brother Joe, who retreated from a promising gubernatorial race not long ago, this Kennedy gave up without a fight. Why? I met Max a decade ago on my front lawn in Northern Virginia. He had arrived to drive me to the University of Virginia Law School, where he and other law students had invited me to speak. I thought it was rather bold of a Kennedy to offer to drive a life-long conservative all the way to Charlottesville, Va. Then I glimpsed the dog. Max had a shaggy canine companion in his car that looked like trouble. Max was ebullient and amiable, but the dog suggested an ambush. As it panted and frolicked and turned the car's interior into a smelly kennel, I assumed that for the next few hours this heir to a liberal dynasty would be peppering me with questions as though we were on "Crossfire." Help. It was early spring, and soon after I entered Max's car the dog's hair activated my already seasonally sensitive allergies. I would be in no condition to speak that night with the dog hair settling into my nostrils, I informed my happy driver. "No problem," Max exulted. Announcing that he too had allergies, he flipped back the top of his convertible and on we proceeded through the chill air at high speed. Max was a can-do guy and a lot of fun. At the law school, it became apparent that he was immensely popular. During our drive and several discussions before and after my speech, I became aware that Max was no ideologue. He was enormously curious about every aspect of the conservative point of view. He was himself some sort of liberal, but he remained open to disagreement. Somewhat reminiscent of his sister Kathleen, now Maryland's lieutenant governor, he had strong moral values but of the type that all Americans would find "mainstream." In sum, I came to find Max enormously likeable, even admirable. So how could he lose in Massachusetts' Ninth District? According to reports, he gave a dismal speech on May 17 and never recovered. The press hounded him for that and for some youthful scrapes, none serious and some exaggerated. He decided to quit the campaign, claiming that politics was not for him -- not when he had three children to raise. It sounded odd to me. Everything I knew about him suggested that he had a proper hankering for politics. After law school, he had become a prosecutor. He had dabbled in public policy and settled on -- oh loathsome fate -- environmental activism. One bad speech did not explain his retirement. Now I have the answer. Max was done in by his uncle's political handlers and by the fashions in national Democratic politics. The speeches that Democratic rhetoricians such as Robert Shrum of Sen. Kennedy's organization and Al Gore's man Doug Hattaway wrote for him were simply not Max. He is a generation younger. He was being made to sound like Gore, and he is someone else. Younger Democrats did counsel Max to "be yourself." But he was overwhelmed by an older generation's organization. At some point during a strategy session, Hattaway was pelting him with questions about what an audience's "take-away message" should be after hearing Max speak. The candidate blurted out that he wanted his audience to go away thinking: "He's a really nice guy, and he cares about me. He'll work harder than anyone else." I think Max's instinct was right. He is a really nice guy. He convinced me a decade ago that he was open to other points of view. Had I been around to advise him, I would have said, "Let Kennedy be Kennedy." And dump those advisors. They are not all that necessary when the candidate has charm and sufficient intellect.