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Next January will mark the first time in 64 years that there has not been a Kennedy in federal office. With Patrick Kennedy’s departure from Congress, a political dynasty comes to an end. But at 42, Patrick Kennedy will have his first chance to discover who he is beyond that famous name. “This is the first step toward personal liberation for him,” says Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and the author of a 2001 biography of the Rhode Island Congressman.
In retrospect, I think I should have figured out that something like this was in the works when I ran into Patrick Kennedy a few months back at a Capitol Hill restaurant. We talked a bit about Ted Kennedy’s funeral, and then he began to describe how he was struggling with the loss. It wasn’t getting easier, he said. He felt lonely in Washington in the absence of his father and mentor. He had tried hard to convince his cousin Joe to run for the Massachusetts Senate seat that had been held for so long by Kennedys. The weight of that political legacy was a burden he hadn’t expected–or wanted–to bear alone. As Patrick told Rhode Island magazine: “It’s pretty simple in this respect: I went through something that caused me a great deal of soul searching and self-reflection. Right now, a personal life is of greater value. Emotional connections that are real and loving and personal just trump everything else.”
He was a college sophomore the first time he ran for office; only 26 the first time an television interviewer asked him whether he would like to run for President. (He answered yes.) His father made no secret of his hope that someday Patrick would serve beside him in the Senate, as his brother Bobby once had. And yet, even though the Kennedy name had propelled Patrick, he never seemed to wear it with the ease of the earlier generation. Speechmaking still terrified him when he came to Congress in 1995. House colleagues recall they could see his hands shaking across the chamber. And he had to wage his struggles with mental illness and substance abuse in public, where they only seemed to confirm his family’s darker storylines.
This would not have been an easy re-election for him. A recent poll had showed him with 62% disapproval among Rhode Island voters, and only 35% saying they would vote for him again. But West notes that Patrick had already raised more than three-quarters of a million for his campaign coffers, and says, “I think he would have won.”
But what would he have lost? Perhaps his last chance to discover who Patrick Kennedy really is.