“There goes the last great American dynasty,” rhapsodizes Taylor Swift on a track from her pandemic-era hit album “folklore.” Her song “the last great american dynasty” draws inspiration from her Rhode Island beach house — but she might as well have been talking about the Kennedys.
Today, America’s star-studded political dynasty, which has birthed one president and three would-be ones, is crashing to an end.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr, nephew of John F. Kennedy, is currently running as an independent candidate for president. His campaign recently switched campaign managers to Kennedy’s own daughter-in-law, never a good sign for a supposedly credible national campaign. But it’s no wonder that the campaign is struggling, when the candidate at its head has made no secret of his eccentric conspiracy theories on subjects ranging from climate change (a hoax fabricated by shadowy elites) to WiFi (causes cancer) to COVID-19 (genetically engineered to spare Jews and Chinese people). Even the campaign’s signs proclaiming “I’m a Kennedy Democrat” seem like only a desperate bid for nostalgia-fueled traction.
Thinking back, you could point to Sept. 1, 2020 as the date when the collapse of the Kennedy dynasty became real. That’s when Rep. Joe Kennedy III, JFK’s great-nephew, was defeated in a bid to replace incumbent Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey. It was the first time any Kennedy had lost an election in Massachusetts. His defeat, credited to the Kennedy heir’s difficulty in explaining his reason for taking on the progressive incumbent, left the family without a member of Congress for nearly the first time in over seven decades.
It’s worth understanding, however, that America’s most famous political dynasty has been flawed from its start. Like their spiritual cousins across the Atlantic, the British royal family, the Kennedys have had their fair share of sordid scandals: infidelity, the forced lobotomization of Rosemary Kennedy, the infamous death of Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969. These are sordid secrets from decades ago, and it’s unfair to tarnish an entire family with the sins of a few of its members. But the myths that persist about the Kennedy dynasty, particularly its founder, contribute to a rose-tinted affection towards the family that is unfortunately misplaced.
President John F. Kennedy exists on a pedestal in American memory as a saintly, idealistic figure. The son of powerful business mogul Joseph P. Kennedy, who relentlessly groomed his sons to seek political office, JFK was a brilliant orator whose methods of gaining political power never matched the idealism of his rhetoric. In 1960, while competing in a must-win state primary on the way to the Democratic nomination, Kennedy deployed family money on a ruthless scale to buy up votes, delivering suitcases of cash to county bosses. “I feel like an independent merchant competing against a chain store,” remarked one of Kennedy’s primary rivals.
Throughout the campaign of 1960, Kennedy leveraged his father’s wealth and connections to the media alongside his own charisma and that of running mate Lyndon B. Johnson. He ultimately eked out a victory over Vice President Richard Nixon by the incredibly narrow margin of less than 0.2 percent of the popular vote, a fact left out from narratives around Kennedy’s campaign centering on his fabled debate performance against the slippery, sinister Nixon.
The myth-making around the Kennedy administration itself is even stronger. It’s worth noting that Kennedy’s domestic agenda, on issues from civil rights to social programs, had been almost entirely stalled in Congress before Kennedy’s fateful November 1963 trip to Dallas. Judging from Kennedy’s pro-escalation policy on the Vietnam War, it’s likely that a second Kennedy term would have tarred the former Massachusetts senator with the same warmonger brush that colors the public perception of Lyndon Johnson.
However, it was Johnson who, as Kennedy’s successor in the Oval Office, succeeded in passing transformative legislation. The Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965), which helped dismantle Jim Crow in the South; the Immigration Act (1965) which ended discriminatory national quotas and effectively created Asian America; and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid as part of Johnson’s flagship War on Poverty. These laws and programs which transformed American society and shaped the lives of millions were the effect of Johnson’s legislative mastery, which succeeded where Kennedy’s famed oration had failed.
Yet it is Kennedy whose martyrdom by an assassin’s bullet left him to live on as a hero in the American public consciousness, regularly listed by members of the public among America’s greatest modern presidents (historians, of course, disagree in their assessment of his three years in office). Since JFK, the Kennedy name has become the most powerful in American politics, propelling the political careers of two influential senators (RFK Sr. and Ted), three congressmen, and today, the anti-vaccine activist RFK Jr.
It’s the power of this Kennedy name, mythologized by the mythmaking around JFK and coupled with the family’s great wealth, that’s given a leg up to the numerous family members who have taken their turn to run for office. It’s the power of this myth that gave Joe Kennedy III the audacity to run for Senator from Massachusetts in 2020 propelled by little more than a family name.
There are those who might say that in some way, the American people need the Kennedy family; that at a subconscious level, we need our own royal family to mythologize and elevate to our nation’s highest offices. Even with the last Kennedy gone from the halls of Congress, the fascination continues. QAnon conspiracy theorists latch on to the Kennedy name. Netflix has announced plans for a big-budget series about John F. Kennedy, following the model of “The Crown.”
There was a moment, in the long 1960s, when America yearned for a Kennedy to be our savior. In Massachusetts, that moment lasted right up until Joe Kennedy III’s defeat broke that spell. And now, perhaps the last Kennedy to walk the national stage pushes a quixotic campaign, propelled by little more than ravings of a crank sheathed in a famous name.
The myth has been dismantled; the famous name of a certain Irish-American family from Massachusetts has been brought back to Earth. Maybe now, we can look back with a truthful and critical eye at the real legacy of what was once the last great American dynasty.
JULIAN DANIEL is a senior in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.