The family calls him T.K., this curly-headed guy in the serious blue suit who waits nervously in the wings of a Boston hotel for his introduction. Inside the speakers for this Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) convention drone on as Teddy Kennedy Jr., a faint dew of stage fright on his ruddy face, smiles, shakes hands, shifts about in the interminable wait to talk about education and the disabled. When he is finally introduced, with a mention of how often his father, Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, has spoken here, the applause breaks like thunderclaps.
He could be any Irish-American freshman from a Massachusetts political family giving his first hurrah. But he's not. He's one of the new wave of Kennedys breaking across public life: 28 of them in all, from six families.
What follows are conversations with some of these young Kennedys who have one thing in common: They don't want to be submerged in their famous family's identity and history; they all want to find their own niche and separate place, an island out of range of the Kennedy lighthouse.
The public tends to think of the neo-Kennedys as members of a vigorous family swim team, all lined up at the diving board ready to take the plunge into politics.
But conversations with the Kennedy cousins suggest that this generation may be different, that so far at least it is public service rather than public office they are pursuing successfully with a Kennedyesque intensity. The reasons may be rooted in what they've seen at painful firsthand of the costs of political life. Some of them, of course, may be laying the foundation for later campaigns as some of the remarks quoted in this story imply. But right now they are trying in the well-burnished family phra se ``to make a contribution.''
As Teddy Kennedy Jr. says: ``I think it would be a mistake for me or anyone else in my generation to compare ourselves with the success of my father's generation. We have our own things in mind, whether it be Timmy Shriver down at Yale, working with Upward Bound inner-city kids, whether it be my cousin Joe or my cousin Michael trying to provide low-cost fuel assistance, whether it be my cousin Chris Lawford who's been active in substance abuse [with] him being free right now after years of struggling wi th that problem, or whether it be me in the disability rights movement. I think that different individuals in our family have really picked the different areas that most concern them, and are doing what they want to do. And I think they will be successful.''
But this generation of Kennedys has also had its bouts with disaster: New York Assistant District Attorney Robert Kennedy Jr.'s arrest in 1983 and later treatment for heroin addiction (followed this summer by American Bar Association approval of his resuming his legal career); Joe Kennedy Jr.'s 1973 driving accident which left a family friend disabled; and the tragedy of their brother David Kennedy's death last year from a drug overdose in West Palm Beach, Fla. Their cousin, Christopher Lawford, who was
also arrested for heroin possession in 1980 in Boston, chose a detoxification program instead of jail; then graduated from Boston College Law School.
Of course, it's all been widely reported in the media, just as every political breath a Kennedy takes is, too. Teddy Kennedy Jr. is indignant about the stories that insist he's running for retiring House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr.'s seat when he says he's not. After the MTA speech and the autographs and photos we find a quiet place to talk nearby, at a round white iron table on a sun-splattered patio. ``I talked to the Boston Globe and I told them, I said, `Listen, rather than hearing what is specu lation, why don't you just talk to me, come to me, and ask me,' '' he says, with a Boston twang. They finally did. But he flinches about the constant media spotlight, a feeling shared by most of his cousins who refused vehemently to do any interviews focusing on The Family.
Teddy Kennedy is tall and solid looking like his father, has eyes that change from blue to green, and a head of hair that's a caucus of brown curls sunburned blonde on top. Bright, impatient, he has the exuberant warmth of a puppy and an earnestness about the cause of the disabled that springs from his own experience. T.K. turned the loss of his leg to disease at 12 into an opportunity to campaign for what he calls ``the physically challenged.'' He's set up his own foundation, ``Facing the Challenge,'' to aid the handicapped, and he consults with the Massachusetts Corporation Partnership, networking employers who hired the disabled with success and convincing new companies to do so. He's also generated much public attention for his cause, speaking around the country, testifying before Congress, skiing in the Special Olympics, and now beginning a book on the handicapped. Next season, NBC will air a feature film on his life.
``The fact is,'' he says, ``that individuals with disabilities have fewer jobs, are paid less, are more discriminated against, and have the least amount of education.'' He speaks with fervor, as he did when he told the MTA: ``I rejected the term disabled, I reject the term handicapped, because that sets restrictions on people's minds, and one of the things we're trying to do isn't just break down the physical barriers which prevent people from realizing their full potential in life, but break down th e attitudinal barriers.''
Teddy Kennedy Jr. says of politicking, ``It's not as if I enjoy it. I tolerate it.'' That may have been a factor in his decision not to run for Speaker O'Neill's seat. A recent Wesleyan graduate who majored in history (like many of his cousins), he quotes his uncle, President John F. Kennedy: ``To whom much is given, much is expected.'' And he adds, ``It really is a challenge to every person in my generation. In some respects there's a lot expected of us. Which is tough.'' His sister Kara works in the n ews department at New York's Metromedia, his brother Patrick is a senior at Philipps Academy. Right now T.K. feels he can make ``a unique contribution'' working for the handicapped. ``But I'm not going to make my life out of my disability,'' he says firmly.
Across town on this same sizzling day, in an office on Boston Harbor, Michael Kennedy sits plotting how to keep New Englanders warm next winter. He is the middle son of Attorney General and Sen. Robert and Ethel Kennedy's squadron of 11 children, the one described as ``the most resilient'' in ``The Kennedys: An American Drama'' by Peter Collier and David Horowitz. Michael Kennedy hears the word ``resilient'' and frowns. ``You've been reading that book, the Horowitz book, which is not a very
flattering portrayal of us,'' he says, and then there is a long pause. The interview, which has just started, hangs suspended in the air like a cobweb while the reporter wonders whether the first question may also be the last question. Then Michael Kennedy decides to continue it, and begins to talk about Citizens' Conservation Corporation (CCC), the nonprofit company he heads which is weatherizing the apartments of 5,000 poor and elderly Massachusetts tenants.
``One of the most important lessons passed along to us,'' says Michael Kennedy, ``is that you can't sit back and enjoy the life that we in the United States, and my family in particular, have been born into, that is wealth and any power that goes along with that. You have to go out and help others,'' he says. ``You have to add something positive.'' Would that something positive include politics? No, he says, ``I'm very happy with what I'm doing now.''
Behind him on the wall as he speaks is a huge graph that lists the names and progress of the buildings signed up for CCC weatherizing. He stresses that the money CCC funnels into weatherizing is not a grant but a loan that's replenished, because the recommendations they make pay for themselves. Harvard and Virginia Law School graduate Michael is now laying the foundation for expanding CCC into New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut.
Of all the sons of Robert Kennedy, this wiry guy looks most like a print of him: a shock of dark brown hair hangs like a cliff over hazel eyes, an alert, introspective face that lights up to 250 watts when he smiles the wide white Kennedy smile. It's echoed in family pictures of his wife, Victoria Gifford, and their children Michael Kennedy Jr. and Kyle.
Michael Kennedy's title is vice-president of CCC, one of the four energy organizations of which his older brother Joe Kennedy II, is president. All are housed in the old brick ``Russian Wharf'' building in Boston Harbor: the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corporation, providing low-cost home heating oil to the poor; two for-profit organizations, Resources Corporation, an oil and natural gas trading company, and Citizens Heat and Power; and CCC.
Media-weary Joe Kennedy, the subject of many stories ranging from the Washington Post Magazine (``The Reluctant Prince'') to the Wall Street Journal, said no to an interview for this story. He chooses to do only interviews that focus on his corporations and did not want to be part of a family story.
John Kennedy Jr. also says, ``I don't really talk to anybody about the family.'' He adds, ``All that stuff about the next generation, I'm not in the mind-set for trying a discussion of torch-passing and all that. . . .'' John Kennedy is currently working in New York Mayor Edward Koch's office as a staff member for the New York City Office of Economic Development. ``I'm responsible for all job-promotion and job-retention strategies.'' But he doesn't want to do interviews ``until I
have something more substantive to contribute,'' he explains, ``I'd rather wait until I have [done] something ready to bear scrutiny on its own merits.'' JFK Jr., a Brown University graduate, toured India for several months studying its language and customs before taking his current job. He talks with pride of his family and says ``I don't want to look like a sore egg'' for not being willing to talk about them, then explains, ``I'm just not as publicly oriented as Teddy or Michael.''
But he has just opened in Brian Friel's play ``Winners'' at the Irish arts center, acting as ``a hobby'' while he works.
His sister Caroline, a Harvard graduate, works in the film and TV department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kennedy women have always been active in the political trenches, working for their men or making contributions in public service, like Eunice Shriver's Special Olympics for the handicapped. But so far Kennedy women, although they apparently have the same political smarts, energy, and clout as the men, have not run for office. That may change with this generation. Lawyer Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the oldest of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's children, confirms that she did talk earlier with her brothers abou t a run for a congressional seat from Maryland. ``You think in terms of what are you going to do with your life. Running for office came into the discussion,'' she admits reluctantly.
Kathleen Townsend is an energetic young woman in a sky-blue print dress and black pumps who greets you with a tennis player's handshake. She is a recognizable Kennedy, with her brown eyes uptilted like her mother's, her cap of dark-brown hair, and the big Kennedy smile. We meet, after a series of phone negotiations, over a Devon cream tea (scones, clotted cream) in a Georgetown hotel.
What she wants to talk about is Central America, because she's the family force behind the new Robert F. Kennedy International Human Rights Award, which gave its first award ($30,000) last year to a Salvadorean human rights group known as Co-Madres. The Madres are mothers, she explains, ``whose children or husbands or relatives had been killed or `disappeared' and who demonstrated each week asking justice for their loved ones.'' When the Reagan administration last year denied visas to leaders of the Co- Madres to receive the award, Kathleen Townsend told Reuters, ``My father would have been aghast to know that the US government thinks that four grieving women could be a threat to its security.''
This spring Mrs. Townsend went on a Central American fact-finding trip set up by the Arca Foundation (a Washington philanthropic group). There she visited refugee camps, met with the Co-Madres and the El Salvador oligarchs, whose ARENA party was in power when the Madres children were killed. ``Well, you know mothers are always the last to know where their children are,'' they told her. She shakes her head in disbelief; mother of three small girls, Meaghan, Maeve, and Kate. She is married to St. John's U niversity Prof. David Townsend.
Kathleen Townsend, a graduate of Harvard and the University of New Mexico Law School, has worked with the homeless, with a Navajo tribe, with Maryland legslators, and ran her uncle Ted's last Senate campaign. ``I'm obviously interested in politics, but I'm also interested in public service.''
Another of the Kennedy women, Maria Shriver, is a reporter for CBS network news in Los Angeles; she sometimes sits in for anchor Phyllis George on ``The CBS Morning News.'' ``In spite of the fact that my cousins are my best friends, I just don't want to go through life like that,'' she says, giving interviews on ``Growing up Kennedy,'' (the title of a book by Harrison Rainie and John Quinn).
A Georgetown University graduate, she decided to strike out away from the traditional family paths, and became hostess of TV's ``PM Magazine'' before joining CBS. As she told authors Rainie and Quinn, ``Television is the power in politics now.''
Her brother Timothy Shriver has made a career since graduation from Yale of aiding disadvantaged or troubled kids through the Yale Child Study Center and ``Upward Bound,'' helping low-income kids get to college. This month he begins working on his master's degree in education from Catholic University. Last year he won a Field Foundation fellowship that allowed him to go on working as counselor at a New Haven inner-city high school where 95 percent of the kids are black, low-income, and special educatio n students. Although he tends to be low key and self-deprecating about his work, Timmy Shriver admits he might have changed some lives. Like the teen-ager he was ``locking heads with'' and despaired of reaching until the kid wordlessly brought Red Sox fan Timothy a Sox button from a Boston trip. ``And he's in college now,'' says Shriver with muffled pride. ``Hey, that's the type of thing . . . sometimes a kid is telling you I wouldn't have made it without you.''
Timothy Shriver says that ``True social service is what we all do for one another. It's not just a profession.'' His own interests are: children, spiritual issues, and community, but he doesn't rule out politics eventually. He says cryptically of the family, ``Everybody is their own best candidate.''
Christopher Lawford, son of Pat Kennedy and actor Peter Lawford, is the only one of the cousins involved in drug-abuse counseling. Christopher, now working as a consultant in Boston's North Charles Mental Health clinic, says he's setting up a program there for people suffering from ``opiate dependency.'' To kids who think they want to try drugs or go on benders he warns, ``There's a price to pay, whether it's a hangover the next morning or alcoholism five years later or a [drug] habit five years later. There's always a price to pay.''
Most low profile of all the cousins is Steve Smith Jr., the Columbia Law School graduate who left work as a Bronx assistant district attorney to work on Capitol Hill. Steve, who has just joined the staff of Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois as a legislative assistant handling foreign affairs, doesn't want to surface publicly. ``It's a matter of how you establish your presence in such a situation,'' he says, refusing an interview.
If he won't talk, what about the rest of the Smith family? ``My brother [William] is in China, my sister [Amanda] is in London, and my other sister [Kym] is 12, so I guess you're out of luck.''
According to ``Growing Up Kennedy,'' Steve Smith like his father who runs the family empire, may choose to be a power behind the throne, never running himself.
As Michael Kennedy points out, laughing softly, ``You know there are only so many Kennedys that can be involved in politics.'' Kennedy family tree: Joseph P. Kennedy/Rose Fitzgerald
Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., Kathleen Kennedy (deceased)
Rosemary Kennedy Children of John F. Kennedy/Jacqueline Bouvier
Caroline B. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy Jr.
Patrick Bouvier Kennedy (deceased) Children of Robert F. Kennedy/Ethel Skakel
Kathleen (Kennedy) Townsend
Joseph P. Kennedy II
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
David A. Kennedy (deceased)
Mary C. (Kennedy) Ruhe
Michael L. Kennedy
Mary K. Kennedy
Christopher G. Kennedy
Matthew M.T. Kennedy
Douglas H. Kennedy
Rory Elizabeth Kennedy Children of Edward M. Kennedy/Virginia (Joan) Bennett
Kara A. Kennedy
Edward M. Kennedy, Jr.
Patrick J. Kennedy Children of Robert S. Shriver, Jr./Eunice Kennedy
Robert S. Shriver III
Maria O. Shriver
Timothy P. Shriver
Mark K. Shriver
Anthony P.K. Shriver Children of Peter Lawford/Patricia Kennedy
Christopher K. Lawford
Sydney (Lawford) McKelvy
Victoria F. Lawford
Robin E. Lawford Children of Stephen Smith/Jean Kennedy
Stephen Smith, Jr.
Amanda M. Smith
Kym M. Smith