The Last Kennedy
A number of Democratic power brokers wanted Representative Joe Kennedy to run for president. He consulted with family members and said no.
FALL RIVER, Mass.—Four new members of the House were hanging out at a bar back at the end of 2012, after a long day of new-member orientation at Harvard’s Kennedy School: Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, and Eric Swalwell of California.
A woman approached the table, and caught O’Rourke’s eye.
“She’s like, ‘Are you who I think you are?’ And I thought, I just won this seat in Texas and she knows about me, and this is cool. I’m big-time,” O’Rourke told me last year, a few months before his Senate run took off. “And I say, ‘Well, yeah, I think I am.’ She’s like, ‘You’ve got to come over to my table. All my friends want to meet you. This is crazy.’ So I go over and we’re taking pictures.”
This went on for a bit, the table getting excited over the young congressman with the big teeth that his new friend would later joke made him the best-looking Kennedy on Capitol Hill.
“Then it dawns on me,” O’Rourke said. “I don’t have his red hair, but I can tell from picking it up that it’s not Beto O’Rourke that they’re interested in. In the middle of the third or fourth picture I said, ‘Oh, hold on a second. Wait. It’s not me you’re looking for. It’s that guy.’ And I went over and I got Joe Kennedy.”
Six years later, O’Rourke, Gabbard, and Swalwell are all running for president—O’Rourke is drawing comparisons to Robert Kennedy—and Joe Kennedy and I are in a rental car, rounding an exit from the highway to this small city on the south edge of his district, not far from Rhode Island.
The smokestacks of a factory pop into view outside his window, and Kennedy is talking about what he calls “moral capitalism,” his rethinking of the fundamental rules of the American economy. He’s also pushing back on the thought that what he’s envisioning seems too radical to become reality by comparing it to John F. Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon.
He’s the last Kennedy left in politics. He’s young, has a national profile, and has come at economics and other issues more thoughtfully and more forcefully than most of the people who are running for president.
That’s why a number of party power players, led by Louis Susman, an investment banker and the former ambassador to Britain under Barack Obama, came to him last year, telling him the answer to the “Why not me?” election the Democrats are in the middle of was “Why not you?”
Kennedy listened. He considered running. For brief moments, he even entertained it.
The Democratic primary field is a mix of 70-year-olds with famous names and candidates scrambling to produce enough excitement to break 5 percent in the polls. It already includes six senators, a governor and a former governor, five current or former House members, and a small-city mayor. This could have been Kennedy’s moment, Democratic power brokers told him. He could have been the candidate to transcend the generational divide, with name recognition on par with that of Joe Biden, politics that could match Elizabeth Warren’s, an electric presence, and the social-media savvy of Pete Buttigieg or O’Rourke, who has remained a close friend. Other supporters are worried that there’s only so much longer that the Kennedy name will resonate as loudly—people who were in high school when JFK and RFK were assassinated are already eligible for Social Security.
People were looking for the next Kennedy. They had the next Kennedy right there.
Kennedy, at 38, is now in his fourth term, with curly bright-red hair and a baby face that can make him seem younger. At least so far, he has managed to avoid the demons and debacles that have defined many in the second political generation of his family. He met his wife at Harvard Law—they both took Professor Elizabeth Warren’s class—and the two cut a striking image together. They have two young children under 4 who they show off on their Christmas cards.
He speaks fluent Spanish, from his time in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. He writes congratulatory emails and thank-you notes by hand, and has developed a fan base of insiders impressed with the battles he picks and how he fights them. He’s well liked by most of his colleagues (including, in an odd-couple pairing, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy), and the few who gripe about him, and the attention he gets, know they’re better off not admitting it.
Even at the end of last year, Kennedy would tell people only that he probably wasn’t going to run. He’s been a huge fundraiser for House Democrats over the years and would have been able to call on those contacts. But he’s also just a fourth-term congressman who’s spent most of his time in Washington, D.C., as a backbencher in the minority, and another white man. And just ask Hillary Clinton how dynasties fare in American politics these days.
Kennedy has always had other plans. Most people expect that he will run for governor of Massachusetts in 2022, or senator at some point down the line, though there is some talk already of him being a good running mate for many of the potential Democratic nominees. (The only candidate for whom he couldn’t be vice president is Warren, since both parties of a ticket being from the same state causes complications in the Electoral College—but she’s the one he endorsed early, before it was clear that O’Rourke would run or that his newer friend Buttigieg would surge.)
“He sees this as a marathon, that he has a lot of years ahead of him,” a Kennedy friend told me.
But, the friend went on to wonder, what if the other runners pass him by?
Kennedy chose Fall River as the backdrop for his speech when he was picked in early January 2018 to give the State of the Union response the following month, as part of the Democrats’ continuing evolution in thinking about how to rebut Donald Trump. In 2017, the response was given by Steve Beshear, the older white former governor of Kentucky, who was speaking for the still-2016-shell-shocked party from a table at a diner, surrounded by more older white people. In 2019, it was given by Stacey Abrams, the dynamic African American woman who’d just missed being elected governor of Georgia.
In 2018, the Democrats’ thinking went, Kennedy’s name recognition alone could make people curious enough to tune in, and compete with Trump’s celebrity, allowing the representative a chance to give them a sense of the future with his focus on justice and equality. From the auto-repair shop at a trade school, the hood of an old car propped open behind him, he delivered the party’s first full articulation of how Trump had betrayed America and his own 2016 campaign promises. (The substance of his remarks was eclipsed on Twitter by people getting caught up in mocking him for too much ChapStick making his lips shiny.)
When the news broke that he’d been picked, Kennedy had just come from hours sitting in a classroom at Harvard Law. He was already at work on a speech he was writing on his big idea: moral capitalism. A few months earlier, in late 2017, Kennedy had emailed Sharon Block, the director of the school’s Labor and Worklife Program and a former Ted Kennedy aide, asking for help in developing his concept, which he was viewing as a kind of working political philosophy. He’d come by her office early in the new year and they talked for hours, back and forth, about books to read. They kept the conversation going via email as Kennedy and his staff kept building up ideas.
This felt familiar, Block told me later, from her years working for Ted Kennedy. She organized a session like the ones he used to enjoy, bringing in experts from the law school and business school, MIT, and a few other places.
In telling me about how it went, Block kept bringing up Ted Kennedy. She tends more toward policy discussions than daydreams, but there’s just something about the family, she insisted, and something that’s made its way down to Joe. “I don’t feel like I have to denigrate other people to say he’s unusual or impressive. This has been a more intense interaction, intellectual exercise,” she said, “than I am used to having with members directly.”
Kennedy could have been a barnstormer all over the country in 2018. Instead, he appeared sporadically at best. His first stop after giving the State of the Union response was just a day later, outside Pittsburgh, for Conor Lamb, then running in a special election for an open House seat. Kennedy was one of only a few national Democrats whom Lamb brought in—along with Biden and Representatives Tim Ryan and Seth Moulton—but it was with a very specific, gray-haired pitch, with the Lamb campaign bringing him by a senior center and a campaign headquarters stocked for the day with older volunteers. Neither got the moral-capitalism speech.
A few weeks later, he was the guest of honor at a Broward County Democratic fundraiser in Florida, with the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland still fresh and student survivors in the room. He talked about a nation in shame about not doing enough to control guns, and then he got personal on a topic he’d never touched publicly before: his grandfather’s assassination. He didn’t say Bobby Kennedy or RFK, but a “young senator from New York,” and then, Kennedy said, “the young senator was gone.”
“Far too many families know the pain of sudden loss. We know that time passes, wounds heal—but scars remain. You are forced to live with that empty space in your heart,” he said.
The room wasn’t expecting it. People were in tears.
He didn’t campaign all that much for the rest of the year, wary of going to Iowa because of the speculation it would have set off, though he wanted to help out Abby Finkenauer, the young candidate running in the northeast corner of the state. He’d go where he had family, or where he could bring his wife and kids: to Texas for his friend O’Rourke, and to Michigan for a day of campaigning.
After what turned out to be the most intense day of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill, he was across the river at the Northern Virginia Democrats big event of the year, the Kennedy-King Dinner. With black-and-white photographs of his grandfather projected on a screen, he urged people to ignore anyone saying that his party was fractured: “Forget the catchy bumper sticker or the perfect slogan. Democrats are united by a higher calling that drives the Blue Dog and the democratic socialist alike. Our party fights for the dignity and livelihood of every person that calls this country home. Our party will not leave you behind. We meet you where you are.”
Lines like this would light up on Twitter for a day or two. But because they were all just pop-ups, not driving to anything bigger, they’d quickly disappear.
The last Friday before the midterms, Kennedy went to West Virginia to campaign for Talley Sergent, a House candidate who had been written off by the party. No other out-of-state Democrat had come to campaign in West Virginia. No other out-of-state Democrat was wanted. But Sergent had chased Kennedy for months, and there he was, the Massachusetts liberal, in hot demand.
“You could feel the energy pulsating. I felt like we were walking out to some sort of concert of an A-lister like Garth Brooks at Heinz Field,” Sergent says. “He gave people a reason to feel good again, and to feel like we’re not invisible.”
He gets the state, Sergent told me. When I asked her how that could be since he’d never been there before and was on the ground for only a few hours, she went on about how often JFK and RFK had campaigned there in the ’60s, as if the knowledge had come down through his DNA and the decades—and Kennedy himself told a story about checking in with his grandmother Ethel before making the trip.
“Even to this day, there is a special relationship that bypasses generations between the people of West Virginia and the Kennedys,” Sergent said. “We are an older state; there are people who remember those days. He appreciates that, and he represents the future. The mix of the two—people felt comfortable with him. And there’s a trust with the brand that he brings.”
The Kennedy family helped make him a national figure. But the family also exposed him, probably more than anyone else in America, to what a campaign would actually entail for him, his wife, and his kids.
That was what he asked about when he got into what a presidential campaign would involve.
“I had folks tell me what that’s like—you’re in D.C. for your actual real job and you get off an airplane to finish up your votes and hop on an airplane to Iowa or New Hampshire or someplace and you’re there all weekend and then you get back on a plane and you fly back,” he said. “You’re never home.”
Again, Kennedy said, he’s cautious about just trading on his name.
“I don’t want to take advantage of the reputation that other family members of mine have earned without giving the public a chance to actually know who I am,” Kennedy said. “Yes, I think there’s a lot of similarities between the values I share and those of my family members. But there’s differences, too.”
When he needs to, he’ll be the one to defend the family’s legacy, like when he ripped into Eric Trump in March for saying on Fox & Friends that “the Democratic Party is no longer the party of JFK.” In a Twitter thread, he quoted his great-uncle in 1960—“If by a ‘liberal,’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions; someone who cares about the welfare of the people, their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties; someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad; if that is what they mean by a ‘liberal,’ then I’m proud to say I’m a liberal.”
The gripe about Kennedy that is voiced quietly by friends and political professionals alike is that he’s too cautious and has spent so much time stressing about the right way to deploy himself that he’s missed actually deploying himself. They fear he’ll miss his moment.
“He won’t take any chances,” a friend and supporter told me.
How Kennedy handled the internal Democratic-leadership fight in the fall, this friend said, is a perfect example: He came out early and importantly for Nancy Pelosi to be speaker again, but he did that without asking for or getting a committee assignment or a leadership position or anything in return. But Pelosi did provide an emailed quote, via a spokesman, praising his “bold-vision and values-based leadership.”
“Congressman Kennedy’s energetic leadership honors his family’s proud legacy of patriotic service,” the quote went on, “and his unwavering commitment to addressing the challenges facing hard-working families has been essential in our fight to build a better future For The People.”
The Kennedys are historical figures for him just like they are for anyone else, but many were also the people who were around the dinner table—and now they’re people that he’s judged against.
“I have the challenge in my life of basically, almost whatever I do in this role, some family member has done it or said it better than I ever could have before,” he said.
In the context of moral capitalism, he brought up the famous speech his grandfather gave in Kansas the day he launched his 1968 presidential campaign, with the line that gross national product misses “the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.” Fifty years later, it’s the same struggle.
“Unfortunately,” Kennedy told me, “he said it a lot better.”
Kennedy came back to Harvard Law in early February to deliver the completed moral-capitalism speech. Listen carefully, and it could have been a 2020 launch speech, speaking to the pain and anxiety that so many Americans are still feeling, and that so many of the presidential candidates are trying to figure out how to address.
“We let the wealthy divert and dilute resources from public schools, public transit, and public housing meant to level the inevitable tip of capitalist scales, and then criminalize the marginalized when they can’t hang on,” he said. “This is the story of our modern economy, and of a government that aided, abetted, and encouraged its rise. It is the challenge of our time.”
America, he told the packed room, is a place “where we reward vast wealth with tax cuts, loopholes, and endless ways to ensure dollars earn more dollars, but value actual labor at only $7.25 an hour. A place whose laws steadfastly protect multinational corporations like Philips Lighting and General Motors when they harvest millions from government tax cuts while laying off workers from Fall River to Detroit … Here, our medical innovations subsidize global health, but our citizens die rationing insulin they can’t afford. Here, we dehumanize immigrants with one hand while exploiting their cheap labor with the other.”
A riff at the end of the speech was pure Joe Kennedy—carefully elevated wordplay delivered with long pauses, a clenched hand hitting the end of each point and a voice that sounded like it was about to crack. He got to it talking about how Trump had usurped America’s story, turning people against one another so that “Americans today fight each other over the scraps of our system, instead of uniting to fight a system that finds them worthy of only scraps to begin with.”
“They bear the swollen, stubborn scars of a government that has, for much of a half century, abdicated its role as guarantor of economic equity and a country that has made it difficult to be middle class, excruciating to be poor, and downright impossible to be poor and—” he said, and then he explained, “poor and black. Poor and brown. Poor and female. Poor and gay. Poor and sick or old or addicted.”
A couple of days after the speech, Kennedy endorsed Warren for president. She calls her platform “accountable capitalism,” but she and Kennedy agree that they’re basically talking about the same thing he calls moral capitalism.
Warren says she was impressed that Kennedy first laid out moral capitalism at the New England Council in Boston the week after Thanksgiving—at what could have been a perfect moment to test drive a presidential platform.
I asked Warren why she gets tagged as a radical when Kennedy is also saying that capitalism is “badly broken and rightfully under attack.”
“That’s an interesting question,” Warren said. She was in a car back to her Senate office from MSNBC’s studio, where she’d been talking up her proposal to break up the big technology companies.
“I think of it like music,” Warren said. “Good to have lots of instruments playing in concert.”
His endorsement came at her official launch event in front of the old mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that had been the site of the Bread and Roses strike in 1912 by immigrant textile workers protesting a cut in their wages. He quoted a speech his grandfather had made in 1968. “Joe is a modest person, and it didn’t surprise me when he batted back suggestions that he run,” Warren said. I asked her if she thinks he will eventually—naturally, after the two terms of the Warren administration that she’s looking to win herself—and she said, “I hope so.”
Kennedy’s district office is in Newton, a few miles outside of Boston, across the street from a strip of strip malls. A Dunkin’ Donuts is on one side of the road; a Whole Foods is on the other. Kennedy prefers breakfast at the Whole Foods. The day after his moral-capitalism speech went over well at Harvard Law School was when we made the drive from Newton to Fall River, about 45 minutes away. “That whole democratic adage of saying, ‘If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to get ahead’?” he said in the car. “They are working very hard, they are playing by every set of rules, and they’re not. And if they’re not, that means the system that is responsible for setting up those rules has to reexamine those rules—and that’s government.”
He knows he was born rich and white and with a family that has a famous compound and that gave him a multimillion-dollar trust fund. He also believes that if capitalism isn’t radically rethought, democracy will collapse. But Kennedy isn’t a socialist, and he doesn’t want socialism to be where his party is headed, although he understands why what’s happening in the country and the world has driven some Democrats in that direction.
Fall River is a town where the problems go much deeper than the crumbling streets and the 27-year-old mayor who was just recalled and reelected on the same day, after charges of fraud and falsifying his tax returns. The town is heavy on melodrama and dysfunction: The previous mayor was investigated for pulling a gun on the current mayor when he was a city councilman. And while all this was playing out, the streets were full of potholes and city services were a mess.
About two months after Kennedy gave the State of the Union response from Fall River, Philips Lighting, a major employer, announced that it was closing its manufacturing plant in town and moving operations to Canada. The workers had been recognized by the company for being one of the best plants in the nation, but within a year of that announcement, about 160 people were out of a job. Kennedy started reaching out to the White House as soon as Philips said it was leaving, reminding Trump’s people that the president had publicly shamed other companies for just this kind of move.
Now that he was back in Fall River, meeting with a few Philips workers in the local offices of their union—secretly, so as not to jeopardize the temporary benefits that the company had promised—Kennedy summed up the response he’d received from Trump in a word: “crickets.”
The workers all wore worry on their faces. A union leader, his voice coming through a speakerphone, thanked “Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy the Third” and read a prepared statement in exactly the accent you’re imagining. A year after Kennedy’s State of the Union rebuttal, the stock market was up, as Trump likes to point out, but the real economy had settled in. The workers told Kennedy that they just wanted a little more time before they hit retirement. They also felt they were due some recognition for helping make Philips Lighting a success for so many years.
Instead, they were scrambling to get retrained, trying to find some way of making the math work on their mortgages and car payments, even if that meant getting a temporary job for $15 an hour.
A few weeks after that trip to Fall River, Kennedy was back in Washington, standing outside the Capitol, squinting in the sun. The House had just passed his resolution rejecting Trump’s ban on transgender service in the military, with every Democratic vote and five Republicans. Kennedy had called a press conference, but he left most of the talking to everyone else there: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a collection of other members, and six veterans, including one who asked what being transgender had to do with working on radar-jamming airplanes.
As much as Hoyer praised Kennedy for his work keeping the caucus together, it was only part way to a symbolic victory. It was a resolution and not a law, and it didn’t go anywhere in the Senate before Trump’s ban took effect last week. Same goes for Kennedy’s evisceration of administration officials over work requirements for Medicaid and insulin prices in recent months: They became viral moments, but so far, at least, haven’t amounted to much more than tweets.
When I asked Kennedy after the press conference why he was so focused on this, or on the rest of his work as the chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus’s Transgender Equality Task Force, he launched into a typical Joe Kennedy moment, in which he managed to sound both completely heartfelt and a little too much like a Boy Scout to be believed. “Because everybody counts. Because that’s what this country’s about. The first words of our founding documents are that we were all created equal and when we said ‘All men are created equal,’ we meant rich white Protestant men. And the 200-plus years since, we have tried, and struggled, and fallen short, but picked up and struggled again to make sure that that word men actually starts to mean women, and African Americans, and Hispanics, and immigrants, and the LGBT community, and everybody else,” Kennedy said. “And I come out of work every day in front of that building, the Supreme Court, and etched in stone above those columns says ‘Equal justice under law’—and the rights I enjoy as a straight white guy are different than the ones the transgender community has to protect them. And that’s just not right, and that’s just not fair.”
Whether Trump wins a second term next year or not, the numbers about America’s future are pretty clear. It’s not going to be more white, more male, more bound to the traditional power centers. Demographics aren’t destiny, which would seem to be bad news in the long term both for Trump-style politics and for a rich white man who is literally the scion of America’s great political dynasty, not yet 40 and betting on there still being time for a big political future past this year.
He’d said in his moral-capitalism speech that he hoped the 2020 election and history would put Trump in his “rightful place.” When I asked him what he thought that rightful place would be, Kennedy said, “His rightful place in history is a candidate that called on some of the darkest impulses of an American electorate at a particularly vulnerable time to elevate his own political prospects.”
Judgments of history and politics are intertwined for the Kennedys, and for Joe Kennedy. There was a line in his speech about not allowing Trump-style politics to go unchallenged. Still, as he’s watched the field fill up, it seemed to speak to his decision to let the race move forward without him at a time when the country and the politics his family helped shape hang in the balance.
“At this particular moment in history, we are reminded of exactly what happens if we take another path,” Kennedy said, “If we choose not to act, someone else will.”