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New Puritanism Imperils Kennedy Aura

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.) was greeting supporters here at last weekend’s Democratic state convention when one particularly enthusiastic fan shouted: “We need you, Joe!”

Kennedy, whose seemingly open path to the governor’s office has been turned into a minefield by furors over his annulled marriage and his brother Michael’s alleged dalliance with a teenage baby-sitter, could not resist injecting a note of political reality. “The truth of the matter is,” he said, flashing his signature toothy grin, “we need you a lot more than you need us.”

The troubles besetting Kennedy, evidenced by recent polls showing him in a dead heat with a Democratic rival once given little chance of sidetracking Kennedy’s potential statehouse candidacy, would be bound to command national attention, given his status as the most prominent scion of America’s most storied political dynasty.

But Kennedy’s woes take on even greater significance because they have come to the fore at a moment in national life when the public arena has been seized by turmoil over morality. Questions surrounding individual conduct and society’s standards are being raised painfully and conspicuously on all sides.

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The latest example was an Air Force general’s withdrawal Monday from consideration for chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after disclosure of an adulterous relationship. This came on the heels of the renewed focus on Paula Corbin Jones’ sexual-harassment suit against President Clinton, which the Supreme Court recently ruled may proceed while Clinton is in office.

These controversies both reflect and reinforce confusion and contradictions among individual Americans about morality, especially sexual behavior. “People nowadays demand both the right to freedom and openness and acceptance in their sexual conduct, whatever it might be, and also the right to privacy,” observed Washington Post columnist Meg Greenfield.

Inevitably, this complicates life for Kennedy and other politicians who frequently find their personal foibles not so easily tolerated or shielded.

Most accept public scrutiny as part of the political territory. “You run for office and people pass judgment on your life from the day you were born,”’ said Rep. John Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.). As for Kennedy’s difficulties, Moakley said: “They’re going to cost him. The question is how much” when, as most in the state assume, he seeks the Democratic gubernatorial nomination next year against Atty. Gen. Scot Harshbarger.

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Judging from the reaction at the Salem convention, the answer to that question remains very much in doubt.

Perhaps prompted by this historic town’s witches museum, which recalls past excesses of Puritan morality, many delegates were inclined to cut Kennedy some slack.

“I think people consider personal factors,” said Salem’s own congressman, Democrat John F. Tierney. “But I think voters understand that politicians have imperfections, and most will base their decisions on the public record.”

Voters are least forgiving of hypocrites, Tierney contended, a sin that he says Kennedy has not committed, given that he has not held himself out as a paragon of virtue.

But in her book, “Shattered Faith,” Kennedy’s former wife, Sheila Rauch Kennedy, argues that the congressman was involved in a kind of duplicity in gaining Catholic Church annulment of their marriage on the grounds of his “lack of due discretion"--an ambiguous term meaning his judgment was not sound enough for him to enter into their marriage. Without the annulment, Kennedy, who has since remarried, could not have participated in the sacraments of the church.

Reflecting on Kennedy’s past campaign commercials that depicted him as “strong yet thoughtful,” Rauch Kennedy writes: “While Joe’s promising image . . . assured me that he was the man to guide our future,” the annulment claimed “the same man had suffered from a lack of due discretion so severe as to invalidate our marriage. Which Joe was the real Joe?”

Meanwhile, the extended fling that Joseph’s brother allegedly had with his family’s baby-sitter beginning when she was 14 could become an even more serious problem because it might lead to statutory rape charges. Despite the closeness of the two brothers, Joseph Kennedy’s partisans argue that this is not his problem. “He’s not his brother’s keeper,” said Laura Stanley, a paralegal from Springfield, Mass.

Joseph Kennedy himself tried to get the issue behind him by apologizing to the baby-sitter’s family in an emotional convention speech. But, in an example of the issue’s complexity, his failure to specifically condemn his brother’s conduct left some in the audience unsatisfied.

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“If that’s where he is going to leave things,” said Marian Hunt of Quincy, Mass., as she stormed out of the convention hall, “I can’t vote for him.”


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