Embarrassment or gamechanger? America’s royal family has a new challenger

US

President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, 60 years ago. I do not remember that fateful day on 22 November 1963, as I was just four years old.

But I do remember the summer day, five years later in 1968, when his brother – former US attorney general and would be president, Robert F “Bobby” Kennedy – was shot dead in that tumultuous election year.

Over the decades since their deaths the two brothers, often referred to just by their initials – JFK and RFK, have never been forgotten.

In the United States, and much of the Western democratic world, they have assumed iconic status in death. Their family members left behind, have tried to pick up their political legacies.

The Kennedy name has been the biggest brand in American politics, public interest in its members sharpened by numerous tragedies and scandals.

Robert F Kennedy and wife Ethel pose with their seven children
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RFK with his wife and their seven children, including Robert F Kennedy Jr (back, far left). Pic AP

Some likened them to America’s royal family complete with symbolic castles at the “family compounds” in Massachusetts and Florida. Clan members seemed to occupy political office, almost as if by divine right.

But the dynastic vision has been fading at last. The myths, personalities and untimely deaths associated with the Kennedys are inevitably resonating less and less with contemporary electorates. There are currently none of the dynasty in elected state or national office.

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In this election year, a maverick Kennedy is hoping to reverse all that. RFK’s 69-year-old son, who shares his father’s name, is running for president.

Whether Bobby Junior revives or further tarnishes the Kennedy brand is an open question. At least four of his 10 siblings say he is “an embarrassment”.

He has abandoned his family’s traditional allegiance to the Democratic party. He pulled out of the Democratic nomination contest to run as an independent candidate against both Donald Trump and Joe Biden, declaring “my intention is to spoil it for both of them”.

President-elect John F. Kennedy (centre) is surrounded by members of his family
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John F Kennedy (centre) surrounded by his family, including his brothers and father, Joseph. Pic AP

RFK junior is a self-styled environmentalist, an anti-vaxxer, and a supporter of the right to bear arms. He has embraced numerous conspiracy theories – even suggesting the CIA was involved in the assassinations of his father and uncle.

He marked the 60th anniversary of the death of President Kennedy by launching a petition to release the last of the government’s records relating to the shooting.

The National Archives says 99% of the material is already in the public domain, following orders from Presidents Trump and Biden. RFK junior retorted, “what is so embarrassing that they’re afraid to show the American public 60 years later?”.

Political dynasty

The Kennedys came to America as immigrants from Ireland. JFK was the first Roman Catholic US president. A grandfather of Joseph Kennedy was mayor of Boston in the 1890s.

Joe Kennedy was the patriarch of the clan and founder of the family fortune. His businesses flourished through the great depression and the prohibition of alcohol.

President John F Kennedy's hand reaches toward his head within seconds of being fatally shot
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JFK reaching toward his head seconds before being fatally shot in 1963. Pic AP

President Franklin Roosevelt gave Joseph P Kennedy I his highest rank in politics by appointing him a controversial ambassador to the UK.

He resigned during the Battle of Britain in 1940, suspected of Nazi sympathies, after commenting “democracy is finished in England”.

He was subsequently a major supporter of the anti-communist senator Joe McCarthy.

Today Joseph’s fortune is shared by several generations of direct descendants, who have mostly chosen to go into public service rather than business. Their net worth is put at several billion dollars.

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Joe and his ambitious wife, Rose, had nine children, all now dead. The eldest son, Joe junior, a US Navy bomber pilot was killed above the English Channel in 1944. Their youngest daughter, Jean Kennedy Smith, was US ambassador to Ireland and died in 2020.

Rose and Joseph put their ambitions and their money behind their surviving sons – Jack, Bobby and Ted. All three became US senators and presidential candidates. Their siblings and descendants have often followed in their political footsteps – to a lesser and dwindling degree.

JFK was elected the US’s youngest-ever president. Young, rich, and beautiful, the Kennedys carefully curated their glamourous image in the White House.

President John Kennedy
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President John F Kennedy

Most famously Marilyn Monroe sang a seductive “Happy Birthday, Mr President” at the Madison Square Garden for his 45th birthday.

He and his stylish wife Jackie had three children. Patrick died in infancy. John junior and Caroline were still small when their father was killed.

Neil Diamond has said Caroline was the inspiration for his song “Sweet Caroline”. More recently Biden appointed Caroline Kennedy US ambassador to Japan, she was previously Obama’s ambassador to Australia.

John junior and his wife Carolyn Bessette were killed when a plane he was piloting crashed off Martha’s Vineyard in 1999.

The last powerful, world-famous Kennedy died in 2009. Edward Kennedy was the younger brother of JFK and RFK.

“Ted” died while still a US senator. Many viewed the liberal Democrat’s 47 years’ of continuous service as an attempt to expiate for what happened at Chappaquiddick in 1969.

Caroline Kennedy with her father JFK
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Caroline Kennedy, who has been a US ambassador to Japan and Australia, with her father JFK

A 29-year-old aide, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned in his car when Kennedy drove it off a bridge in Martha’s Vineyard. He survived but was later linked to a further scandal.

After a night partying with his son and nephew, his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, was charged and subsequently acquitted, of rape. Dr Smith went on to found the charity Physicians Against Land Mines (PALM).

Ted had three children, including Patrick who served eight terms as a congressman from Rhode Island before retiring with mental and addiction issues.

Of RFK’s 11 children, Joseph P Kennedy II was a six-term congressman for Massachusetts, Kathleen was a two-term lieutenant governor in Maryland and then there is RFK jnr.

Jack, Ted and Bobby’s sister Eunice married Sargent Shriver, who ran unsuccessfully in 1974 on the Democratic ticket as George McGovern’s vice-presidential candidate.

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Their daughter Maria Shriver was married to the bodybuilder and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was twice elected Republican governor of California.

‘Challenger’

Joe Biden has always enjoyed a close relationship with his fellow Irish Americans. As well as sending Caroline Kennedy to Tokyo, he made Ted’s second wife, Victoria, ambassador to Austria.

President Biden also appointed Ted’s 23-year-old grandson, Joseph P Kennedy III, US special envoy to Northern Ireland.

Now Bobby is challenging Biden. In a favourability opinion poll this month by Harris, he topped the candidates list with a net rating of +27, ahead of Trump on +7 and Biden on -2.

That does not make him a likely winner in the US’s fundamentally two-party system, but third-party candidates matter because they often affect who becomes president.

In 2000, when Democrats won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, the activist Ralph Nader scored 97,488 votes in Florida. If Al Gore had picked up just 537 of those votes he would have become president instead of George W Bush.

In 2016 Democrats again won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College.

In the swing states of Wisconsin and Michigan the Libertarian, Gary Johnson, and Green Party’s Jill Stein, each took multiples of the margin of votes by which Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump.

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Kennedy’s current ratings around 20% are on a par with the businessman Ross Perot, the strongest third force of modern times.

Perot won 19% and 8% of the popular vote respectively in 1992 and 1996, arguably assisting Bill Clinton’s election.

With typical entitlement, Kennedy says he is confident he will win the battle against Trump and Biden’s lawyer to “get on the ballot of every state”.

If he succeeds, polls suggest he takes slightly more votes from Trump than from Biden. That could be enough to change who wins in closely fought key states.

Trump has called Bobby a Biden “plant”. The Biden campaign is worried that the Kennedy name could cost Democratic votes.

They note Bobby’s visit to Trump’s White House and the encouragement he has received from Steve Bannon and alternative media outlets such as Fox News, Joe Rogan and Jordan Petersen.

Plugging into the mood of populist discontent, Bobby is appealing for votes from “people who are willing to question orthodoxy”.

As embodied by JFK and RFK, the Kennedy name is one of the most revered in American politics. Now yet another descendant is attempting simultaneously both to exploit and to escape from being a Kennedy.

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