The gifts of a Kennedy father

I once advised a politician who faced the possibility of running for office against a Kennedy. My client was charismatic, intelligent, witty, and energetic – all the things people liked about John and Robert Kennedy.

"It will be hard for you to be the Kennedy liberal in a race against a Kennedy," I deduced. Fortunately for my client, the Kennedy decided not to run.

This year, and possibly for many years to come, the standard-bearer for America's premier political family (sorry, Bushes) is Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. When Parris Glendening put her on his ticket in 1994, he was clearly hoping her family legacy would add some luster to his image. After eight years as an effective deputy, tackling issues as intractable as crime and education, Ms. Townsend is ahead in the polls to succeed him.

Townsend knows that while her maiden name may open doors, it's up to her to build a political career. Her uncle Sen. Ted Kennedy once said if you took a secret ballot, Kathleen would be voted most responsible. That may have been meant to say, she's the least likely to get into trouble, as some of her siblings and cousins have done, but it's also an indicator of her success in politics.

Old family friends say Townsend leads her generation in showing the gifts of her father and uncle. After President Kennedy's assassination Robert Kennedy wrote, on White House stationery, this instruction to his eldest daughter, then 12: "Be kind and work for your country." As a girl, Kathleen at first thought about becoming a nun. Instead she went into politics.

On her website, Townsend tells about her father's return from a trip to poverty-stricken Mississippi: "He returned to his home in the suburbs of Washington as the entire family was sitting down to dinner. He entered the dining room ashen-faced and said, 'A whole family lives in a shack the size of this room. The children are covered with sores and their tummies stick out because they have no food.' He paused for a moment and said to his children, 'Do you know how lucky you are? Do you know how lucky you are? Do something for your country.'"

Kathleen Kennedy listened to her father's call, and so did millions of others, myself included. For years my computer was programmed to insert these lines from Robert Kennedy's historic 1966 trip to South Africa into the material I wrote for political candidates:

"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Today, when every political word and action is carefully scrubbed for controversy, soaring language and exhortations of civic pride can sound as antiquated as Latin.

But there's a reason candidates like to dip into the well of language every once in a while and compose a poem, rather than a press release. Part of Robert Kennedy's appeal was the way he spoke, the words he chose.

Larry Shore was a high school student in Johannesburg when Sen. Robert Kennedy visited. Now a faculty member at Hunter College (CUNY), Dr. Shore has gathered a wealth of audio and film clips as well as contemporary documents and press accounts for a documentary and website entitled "Ripple of Hope in the Land of Apartheid: Robert F. Kennedy in South Africa" (www.hunter.cuny.edu/im2/rfksa1966/).

"The 'ripple' speech was delivered in the context of a South Africa where people felt powerless, completely powerless," Shore says. "Here was someone important saying, you don't have to be someone like me, you don't have to be a Kennedy, because all of your acts, all of you here, add up to something important and powerful. That's a powerful message, whether it's delivered by Robert Kennedy in Johannesburg or Kathleen Kennedy in Maryland."

Today, eloquence has its price in politics. Every word, and for women candidates, every hairstyle, is parsed by the press for potential gaffes. Townsend's attempt to translate a favorite phrase of political philosophy was ridiculed when she talked of "indispensable destiny," but it's better than Bob Dole blathering on about taxes, isn't it?

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend can be as polished and scripted as any politician, but occasionally she can also remind us what we used to find admirable about politics. Don't just ask for my vote, appeal to my heart and soul.

• William S. Klein is a political consultant.

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