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Camelot: The Next Generation

Patrick Kennedy is a square peg in his family's historic round table
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 1, 2009

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Senator Ted Kennedy's months-long battle with brain cancer inspired endless commentary about the demise of Camelot.

"As for the Kennedys," wrote David S. Broder of the Washington Post in January, "where there once seemed to be a limitless supply of them — handsome, energetic, and ambitious — they can now count only one federal office holder in the younger generation, Sen. Kennedy's son Patrick, a congressman from Rhode Island."

A congressman, he wrote, better known for "his personal problems than his political accomplishments."

The not-so-subtle implication — that Patrick is ill-equipped to carry the family mantle — surely rankles.

But for Kennedy, who has no illusions about filling his predecessors' outsized shoes, the commentary strays farthest afield in its flawed reading of his political inheritance. Yes, his Uncle Jack gave him Camelot and his Uncle Bobby a sense of what might have been. But his father gave him something else. Something more relevant, perhaps more concrete.

The late senator, labeled an unworthy standard-bearer in his own day, rose above expectations not with a glittering restoration of the throne, but with something far more yeoman-like.

"My dad's legacy was his work, one day at a time, day in and day out, over the course of 50 years," says Patrick Kennedy, who has now represented Rhode Island's First Congressional District for 15 years.

That, of course, is a legacy Kennedy can more easily wrap his arms around. And in a way, he has. It is the congressman's persistent politicking on the House Appropriations Committee that has helped bring more than $500 million to Rhode Island and New England over the last seven years — and cemented his place in Washington.

But if Kennedy, 42, is drawn to the workman-like elements of his father's creed, he is also keenly aware of the power of his name. And he has not hesitated to exploit it. "In politics," he says, "your tradecraft is connections."

The myth of Camelot helped get him elected. It set him up for a turn atop the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), where he raised millions for his colleagues and earned his plum spot on Appropriations.

And Kennedy has turned his struggle with drink and drugs and depression, the dark side of the family bequest, into his single greatest triumph: legislation, signed by President George W. Bush last year, which requires insurance companies to cover mental and physical illness in equal measure.

But if the congressman, like an earlier generation of Kennedys, has made his way with a mix of diligence and family connections, the comparisons to his forebears have their limits. The representative, if possessed of a certain humble charm, has nothing like the oratory that helped elevate his father and uncles from politician to inspiration. His personal troubles have raised questions, fair or not, about his fitness for the job. And the congressman is of an era that does not lend itself to the history-making politics of his progenitors.

Kennedy, if partial to the family toolbox, has built something smaller than what came before. Something smaller than Camelot. A modest but sturdy structure for a nation that seems unlikely to believe in castles again anyhow.

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'I would always drop the ball'
Patrick, the youngest of Ted and Joan Kennedy's three children, did not fit the family mold. His early struggles with asthma put him on the margins of the Hyannisport football games that cast the clan as the embodiment of a muscular liberalism. "I was never athletic," he once said. "I would always drop the ball."

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