By Dreyfuss, Robert
The Nation , Vol. 271, No. 8
Nine years ago the National Enquirer broke the news that Patrick Kennedy, then 24 and a Rhode Island state legislator, had been a habitual user of cocaine. For the Enquirer, that was business as usual: The weekly had milked Kennedy-family scandals and peccadilloes for decades. So there was an element of irony last year when Kennedy--now a Rhode Island Congressman who, as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is charged with the responsibility of overseeing the party's drive to retake control of the House of Representatives--jetted down to Palm Beach to solicit a $100,000 contribution from Enquirer heiress Lois Pope. "One of the great joys of my life is meeting people who inspire me," Kennedy said.
For Kennedy, Pope's check was just a drop in a very large bucket. Since the beginning of 1999, Kennedy has led the campaign committee to a record-setting take of $60 million (based on reports through June), mixing an unprecedented flood of soft-money donations from labor with a seemingly endless stream of corporate backers placing bets that the Democrats will recapture the House. And, with $37 million of that total unspent, the DCCC's war chest exceeds that of its Republican counterpart by more than half. Thanks in part to Kennedy's frenetic fundraising pace, the House Democrats' cash on hand is ten times their 1998 total.
Politically savvy but rarely accused of intellectual heft, his speech often tongue-tied and mystified by syntax, his political life succored by unlimited campaign cash and ready access to what he calls "my father's Rolodex," Kennedy would, under other circumstances, be a virtually unknown backbencher. And indeed, he has so far remained mostly invisible to the public at large.
But that could soon change. Should the Democrats win this year, Kennedy will garner much of the credit, and he will take his place in the House on a trajectory that could easily elevate him to a key leadership post, even Speaker, in years to come. Elected to Congress at 27 in 1994, Kennedy is two decades younger than most of the House's senior Democrats, and he has an impregnable hold on his Rhode Island district. One of two second-generation Kennedys in politics--the other being his cousin Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland's lieutenant governor--he is heir to an unlimited political fortune. "He is the political crown prince of the next generation of Kennedys," says Darrell West, professor at Brown University and author of the just-published Patrick Kennedy: The Rise to Power.
Yet by taking over the DCCC and plunging into the muddy waters of campaign fundraising, Kennedy risks becoming soiled himself. It is a path to power that involves an unending number of dirty dealings, shaking hands with affluent, favor-seeking people and pocketing their checks. That suits the party establishment, intent on making 2000 the year that Democrats were finally competitive with Republicans in campaign cash. But, having enthusiastically helped to cement his party into its alliance with corporate backers and the well-to-do, can Kennedy re-emerge to become a leader in the party's unruly left-of-center coalition of liberals and progressives? Or will he be corrupted by, and ensnared in, the business-as-usual politics of the "new" Democratic Party?
Not everyone may share the view of Kennedy as a crown prince, but around the country he is treated like royalty. Mike Honda, who's running for Congress in California's 15th District, marvels at the way voters there reacted when Kennedy visited for a round of rallies and fundraising events. "They want to touch a Kennedy," he says. "It's like seeing a work of art." Honda, who was aggressively lobbied by Kennedy to enter the race, seems himself to be in awe of the man. "When I was in college I joined the Peace Corps under the inspiration of President Kennedy," he says. "So it's interesting that another Kennedy comes along and asks me to serve."
"People love him. …