Name, reputation and problems Joe Kennedy: His popularity has taken a nose-dive as scandal again embroils America's first family of politics.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOSTON -- At Doyle's pub, the odds aren't in Joe Kennedy's favor this evening. The bartender practically spits out his name and swears never to vote for him. Women in the restroom rail about how Kennedy men behave and predict he won't set up shop in the Statehouse.

Ed Jesser, unofficial king of this political hangout, sits in a corner booth, rubbing his snow-white beard and nursing a Bass Ale. All this pessimism doesn't dissuade him: Ethel and Bobby's oldest son will win the governor's race in 1998, he says.

"He's got the name, the reputation and the teeth," says Jesser, a Democratic political consultant.

But right now, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II has got major problems.

His 39-year-old brother and political confidant, Michael, was alleged to have had a sexual relationship with his children's baby sitter, beginning when she was 14, which could result in statutory rape charges.

Joe Kennedy's former wife is making headlines with her book decrying the Catholic annulment he sought in 1993 after they were married for 12 years and had twin sons. (The couple were divorced in 1991; the church granted the annulment last year.) Sheila Rauch Kennedy also accuses him of badgering and demeaning her, having called her "a nothing." Joe and Michael are younger brothers of Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

The other political news to rock this state -- Republican Gov. William F. Weld's surprise announcement late last month that he will become ambassador to Mexico instead of seeking a third term -- should have been good news for Democrats. But published reports suggested a Kennedy conspiracy at work: Democratic operatives encouraged White House officials to give Weld the job and clear the way for Joe Kennedy.

Such strange political developments -- even by Massachusetts standards -- have made a race that's 19 months away front-page news in Boston, leaving America's first family of politics once again embroiled in scandal.

'No one saw this coming'

"This is the Massachusetts equivalent of the fall of Eastern Europe," says Tom Vallely, a Democrat who ran against Joe Kennedy in 1986 and now works at Harvard. "We're looking at something of that magnitude. No one saw this coming. But that doesn't mean that the Communists can't come back again."

At a bar in Cambridge, Joseph Delgardo, a Kennedy supporter, says the 44-year-old congressman is getting a raw deal.

"You can't always be your brother's keeper," says Delgardo, 47, a city employee. "I have relatives who are in jail. There's nothing you can do about that. It's family.

"My honest opinion about the annulment is: What the heck does that have to do with Joe Kennedy? That's Sheila's battle with the church. I've been through a divorce. There are things I said to my ex-wife. I probably said she's a nobody and she called me worse than that. When a man and woman get into an argument, that's a private thing."

But what might seem private to one is public to others. The potentially career-breaking campaign has prompted both soul-searching and barroom banter, raising questions to which there may be only opinions, not answers.

"Psychologically, the annulment story and Michael's story in some minds are tied to a value system that most people reject," says Larry Rasky, president of a communications consulting firm in Boston who has worked extensively in Democratic politics. "It certainly speaks to the character issue. But the talk shows are acting like this latest revelation is about Joe instead of Michael.

"His challenge is to define his candidacy so that this doesn't become a plebiscite on the Kennedy men and their relationships over 35 years. Some people are asking: Is there a character flaw that runs genetically through this family?"

Bill Farrington, a 26-year-old investment analyst in Boston, mulls over the question at lunch. He says his generation is less critical of Kennedy misdeeds but also less enamored of the mystique.

"Everyone thinks it's a love affair with the Kennedys here," the Republican says. "That may be true of older people. But the younger people are not all like that. We're sick of everyone equating Massachusetts with the Kennedys."

His friend Scott Anderson, an independent, adds: "I don't care who's having an affair in the Kennedy family. I want good jobs and a decent economy."

Jean Inman, chair of the state Republican Party, believes these attitudes will help the GOP keep the governor's office. "I really do think a bit of the Kennedy mystique has worn off," she says. "Those who have been followers of the Kennedy family were followers of President Kennedy. Nowadays, fewer voters have that memory. They're taking a fresh look at each Kennedy who comes along."

Harsher judgment

Some observers believe this latest scandal is being judged more harshly because, if true, it involved a 14-year-old and was committed by Michael, a member of the younger generation, which as a group has yet to prove itself.

And the sordidness, even when compared with other Kennedy disgraces, is high.

Michael's estranged wife, Victoria Gifford Kennedy, the daughter of ABC sports commentator Frank Gifford, first found her husband and the baby sitter in bed years ago, according to reports in the Boston Globe. He blamed alcohol and checked into a Maryland center for treatment, the newspaper said. But the relationship continued, apparently causing the announcement weeks ago that the couple had separated after a 16-year marriage and three children.

The woman, now 19 and a college freshman, and her family have declined to cooperate with a preliminary review by prosecutors, leading to speculation that charges are unlikely.

Favorable rating down 17%

But these events explain why Joe Kennedy's popularity has taken a nose-dive. A Boston Globe poll last week shows him in a dead heat with Republican contenders, Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci and state Treasurer Joseph Malone. His favorable rating has dropped from 60 percent to 43 percent in a few months.

But political consultants aren't writing Joe Kennedy off. He has faced adversity before. One of 11 children, he was 15 when his father was assassinated. In 1973, he was on Nantucket when a car he was driving overturned and left a young woman paralyzed. In 1986, he was elected to the House seat that House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill and John F. Kennedy had held before him.

As a politician, he is charismatic but at times inarticulate. This lack of skilled speechmaking showed last week when he made his first -- and only -- public comments about the recent turmoil in his life, including allegations against his brother.

"It's a big family -- there's always going to be a few little problems along the way," he said, "and this one might not be such a little one for everybody."

But if he still has much to learn, he has time.

"This is Joe Kennedy's first fight," Vallely says. "We'll see how he does. He inherited a political future. He's not going to inherit this. He's going to have to fight for it.

"This is Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in the second round. And Ali just found out he's fighting a bull."

Pub Date: 5/06/97

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