Ted Kennedy Jr.'s Disarming Candor

Colin McEnroe
Contact ReporterThe Hartford Courant

Not that it matters much to most politicians, but there's a fairly easy way to get on my good side, at least temporarily. I place a disproportionate weight on how they handle encounters with my son.

So it came to pass on Father's Day on 2011 that The Son and I were walking along Chapel Street in New Haven, having attended a performance of "The Cripple of Inishmaan," which Ted Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Kiki, somehow helped bring to the United States.

Into whom do we run but Ted himself and another guy. Ted did absolutely the right thing: Greet me perfunctorily and then shift the high beams of his Kennedy-ness onto The Son, as if this were the person in all of New Haven whose opinions on theater he most prized. I was left to chat with the other guy.

Yes, yes, yes, he's had a lot of training, but it seemed to go a little further than that. It seemed like the gesture of a man who remembered what it was like to be in the company of a father who sucked up a lot of attention. Not that I am a supernova. But you know what I mean.

Today I asked The Son if he remembered. Absolutely he did. Each new generation has less and less of a clue of what the Kennedys used to mean. If either of The Son's grandmothers were still alive, they would have regarded this tale as a Brush with Godhead. My mother was a flinty Goldwater Republican, but she could not resist the notion that the Kennedys ate ambrosia and burped butterflies. The Son doesn't really get that, but he remembers this guy.

I'm telling you all this so you will know not to trust me when I say that the Mark Leibovich profile of Kennedy in the New York Times magazine — which runs today but has been circulating since Wednesday — may not be a train wreck.

On the surface, yes, it does seem unfortunate. Not since Hamlet has an office seeker shown us so much of his behind-the-scenes thinking. Kennedy shares with Leibovich his readiness to enter a new phase of public service, his eagerness to cultivate relationships with people who can help and his desire to have Leibovich write a "foundational" piece. Sheesh. Foundational. If he were talking about his Spanx, it would be better.

You cannot openly wish for a foundational story, unless your name is Aeneas, Luke Skywalker or Saul of Tarsus. A foundational story, in this context, is a primal narrative account alongside which your future behavior can be lain and measured and understood.

Leibovich delivers a foundational story in which Kennedy is seen accompanied by officious, even smothering, handlers who are assisting him with this "rollout." Toward what is he being rolled? Nobody seems to know. Not senator from Massachusetts or thane of Cawdor. Only those two are ruled out.

The writer himself seems genuinely baffled. This is like David Copperfield telling the audience he's going to borrow their neckties and stick them on hard-to-see wires and make them appear to dance in the air. And then expecting applause when he does the trick.

And yet, and yet. There's something refreshing about all this bumbling candor. Even Leibovich, having been handed a hatchet, can't decide whether to bury it in Kennedy's back or use it to build a cozy fire for the two of them. He keeps coming back to how likable the guy is.

Joseph Campbell was a great expert in foundational myths. He would have loved the way this one reads. The young hero is called to adventure (by his towering father). He refuses. He survives severe trials (in this case a leg lost to cancer). He goes into the belly of the whale. (Kennedy got clean and sober at the Institute of Living 22 years ago.) Having gained wisdom, he embarks on his own quest on his own terms, his own timetable.

We're all desperate for somebody to believe in. Maybe Kennedy has inchoately grasped something about modern public life. We all know the clockworks are there. Why not drop the pretense, pull off the face and show us all those strange springs and gears? But you can't trust me.

Colin McEnroe appears from 1 to 2 p.m. weekdays on WNPR-FM (90.5) and blogs at http://courantblogs.com/colin-mcenroe/. He can be reached at Colin@wnpr.org.

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