There was a terrible familiarity about the death of Michael Kennedy on a ski slope in Aspen, Colo., on New Year’s Eve, a tragic ending to a difficult year for a family now defined almost as much by suffering and scandal as by its great accomplishments.
Michael Kennedy’s death on a mountainside at age 39 is but the latest in what has been a decades-long roster of pain and anguish for the Kennedys, a list that includes two assassinations, one death in combat in World War II, another by a drug overdose in 1984, and a celebrated rape trial that ended in acquittal.
Throughout, the Kennedys have carried on a commitment to public service that has helped make them the closest thing this country has had to a royal family, one whose triumphs and tragedies have made them larger than life to ordinary Americans.
“They’ve had more power, more money, more tragedy, more adversity,” historian Michael Beschloss said Thursday. “Almost on a Shakespearean level. … There is just an uncanny amount of tragedy in this family.”
No novelist could have written the final chapter of the Kennedy saga of 1997, a year that saw the family reputation tarnished by revelations that Michael had carried on an affair with a former family baby sitter, allegedly beginning when she was 14. The uproar in Massachusetts forced his brother, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, D-Mass., to abandon his plans to run for governor in 1998. It caused cousin John F. Kennedy Jr. to write in his political magazine George that Joe, who had sought an annulment of his 12-year marriage that produced two children, and Michael were “poster boys for bad behavior.”
Then came publication of Seymour Hersh’s “The Dark Side of Camelot,” a bark-off portrait of the sexual and other peccadilloes of former President John F. Kennedy. Then in the waning hours of the year, Michael slammed into a tree while skiing in Aspen with other members of his family and was pronounced dead shortly afterwards in the hospital.
“Those of us who knew Michael and worked with Michael feel not only terrible about his loss, but the fact that he’s likely to be remembered not very much for the things that he did that were really quite extraordinary,” said Robert Shrum, a Democratic political consultant who worked for Michael’s uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. “There was a lot of talent and a lot of caring. That’s not going to be remembered as I believe it should be.”
The reactions to Michael Kennedy’s death were almost universal in pointing out how much suffering the Kennedys have endured over the years. “I don’t know anyone who can match the sort of continuum of sadness this family has had,” Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said. “And maybe that’s the price you pay for great glories.”
“Even as a keen critic, you want to bury your face in your hands and shake your head,” said Kevin Sowyrda, a Republican analyst in Massachusetts. “We don’t know what to make of another Kennedy death. We almost expect it now.”
The legacy of tragedy dates back to World War II, when Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the eldest son of the Joseph and Rose Kennedy and the young man tapped by his father to begin to build a political dynasty, was shot down over the English Channel and died at 29.
Later came the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 in Dallas. Five years after that, Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles moments after accepting victory in the California presidential primary. The following year, their brother the senator, Ted Kennedy, drove his car off a narrow bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. He survived, but his aide Mary Jo Kopechne was killed.
The 1980s and 1990s brought new problems to a new generation of Kennedys. Robert Kennedy’s son David died of a drug overdose in 1984. William Kennedy Smith was charged with rape at the family home in Palm Beach, Fla., but was acquitted by a jury in 1991. Then last spring came reports about Michael’s prior relationship with a teen-age baby sitter.
Michael’s own life seemed a metaphor for the family, combining service and scandal. He was the middle of 11 children and was only 10 years old when his father was assassinated in 1968. He worked with his brother Joe at a nonprofit energy company in Massachusetts and helped establish Stop Handgun Violence. In 1994 he managed his uncle’s re-election campaign in what became the most challenging race of Ted Kennedy’s career. Michael also wrestled with alcoholism and sexual addiction.
“He was smart, focused and had a real energy and intensity to him,” said Charlie Baker, a Democratic political consultant who was a friend of Michael’s. “He had a real commitment, a real love and respect for public service.”
It is that sense of duty that has helped sustain the Kennedys through their difficulties. Three Kennedys still serve in Congress and another, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, is the lieutenant governor of Maryland. The family continues to make its mark in the public arena.
Yet with Michael Kennedy’s death is a reminder that tragedy continues to stalk this privileged family. Shrum said the events of so many years have bred “a certain stoic quality” into the family that has helped them carry on in the face of so many problems. Said Massachusetts Democratic consultant Mary Anne Marsh, “It’s more than you would expect any family to bear.”