In 1999, the House of Lords Act was passed, preventing (for the most part) seats in Great Britain’s legislature from being inherited. This November, we will see if seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are sometimes a matter of birthright.
The people of Massachusetts’ Fourth Congressional District will have to choose between Joseph P. Kennedy III, the 31-year-old scion of America’s so-called royal family, and Sean Bielat, 37, a Marine reserve officer and small business CEO. Bielat’s résumé, charisma and centrist, economy-driven positions would surely make him a favorite, if not a shoo-in, in many congressional races across the nation. But in this race, of course, it is Kennedy the Third who takes the spotlight.
The most recent media feature on Kennedy, a profile in The New York Times Magazine, reads more like a piece in Hello!, a British magazine dedicated to the exploits and meanderings of Europe’s young aristocrats. After cataloguing his first-class education and documenting his appearance (he looks like “Prince Harry,” according to The Times, with “blue-green eyes” and a “forelock” worthy of the Roman emperors), the article bizarrely recalls what it refers to as a “somewhat heroic moment” from Kennedy’s past: “a drizzly evening, in which Kennedy, after a school dance, single-handedly endeavored to find another party.”
The piece’s vacuity reflects the hollowness of Kennedy’s campaign. Like Gladys Glover, Kennedy has “name alone” as his greatest tool for self-promotion. And careful references to the Kennedy forebears and their “tradition of public service” (no mention, of course, of the family’s equally prolific tradition of philandering, car-crashing and drug abuse) have been the campaign’s bread-and-butter.
Joseph Kennedy III first garnered national attention in 2011 when he spoke about JFK’s famous “City on a Hill” speech in the Massachusetts General Court; unabashedly, and with all the raw, timeless symbolism of dynastic regimes past, he stood at the same dais his great-uncle did 50 years earlier. More recently, at the Democratic National Convention — one of America’s ultimate pageants of party politics — the young Kennedy was given a coveted space on the roll of speakers to talk about his pedigree. The heir apparent was crowned.
As if by divine right, Kennedy sailed through the primary with no serious opposition. Hoit Nelson, a voter quoted in The Boston Globe, even declared that he knew nothing about the candidate, but that the name was enough for Kennedy to earn his vote. And although he has never held elected office, Kennedy — a one-percenter if there ever was one — has raised more money than many senior incumbents and party leaders in Congress.
With the general election looming, it is up to the district’s voters to wipe the stars from their eyes and make a thoughtful decision. So far, few have focused on Kennedy’s personal — rather than family — background; his tenuous connection (if any) to the district in which he is running; and his political positions.
Until the beginning of the year, Joseph Kennedy III didn’t live in the Fourth District; he lived at his mother’s posh Cambridge address and at a house at the Kennedy clan’s ancestral seat, Hyannis Port. Since registering a home in Brookline, he and his entourage have traveled around the district like some peripatetic royal court, shaking many hands but declining almost all interview requests and foregoing virtually every public speaking opportunity.
For Kennedy is far from compelling in presenting his positions — positions which are at best vague, and at worst non-existent. In his ads, Kennedy is awkward and soft-spoken, dropping the ends of his sentences as if in embarrassment. In his premier ad, he outlines his positions: a “fair tax code”; a “fair jobs plan”; a “fair housing policy.” And who could argue with that? The ad ends, of course, with an appeal to his family history.
We might assume that Kennedy, like Gilbert & Sullivan’s character Sir Joseph Porter, will “always vote at his party’s call and never think of thinking for himself at all.” In a debate against two comically amateur primary opponents, however, Kennedy was unable to answer even basic policy questions. The moderator cringed as Kennedy umm’d and ahh’d before announcing that he did not know where he stood on the question of medical marijuana (an important referendum issue on the Massachusetts ballot in November).
As Massachusetts Attorney General Edward McCormack quipped to another Kennedy 50 years ago, congressional seats should be “merited, not inherited.” Plus ça change. But for his name and the enchanted, princely aura with which the media has endowed him, Joseph P. Kennedy III is frightfully unqualified for the U.S. House of Representatives. He is engaged, however. And if he is elected in November, you can be sure that the media will report with excitement on America’s “Royal Wedding.”
Please, voters of the Fourth District, spare us that fate.
Jack Carlson, like Joseph Kennedy III, attended Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is currently a Clarendon Scholar at Oxford University.