Chapter 85: Please Come to Boston - The Kennedy Clan Struggles in the New Decade
Above: Former President John F. Kennedy’s health and physical appearance began to deteriorate in the mid-1970s, as the effects of Addison’s Disease and his other conditions worsened (left). The Kennedy Family Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts - home to the former President and his family as well as the seat of power for America’s preeminent political dynasty (right).
Jack Kennedy did not like growing old. He was no stranger to the laundry list of physical ailments which hounded him in every one of his waking hours. Indeed, he had faced them bravely and with grit and resilience for all of his 56 years. He had managed to lead the most powerful nation in history for eight of them, even while being in the most precarious health of any Commander in Chief since Franklin Roosevelt. There it was again. Much as JFK absolutely cherished being compared to FDR, this was one area in which he would have preferred to be a little more different than his political role model. Days were often shorter for the former President than they used to be. Just after leaving the White House, he would spring out of bed early in the morning to swim laps in the family pool, a daily ritual he had continued in Washington to keep in shape and work out his muscle aches, on recommendation from the best of his personal physicians. After this, Kennedy enjoyed eating a hearty breakfast before spending the afternoon sailing and fishing with his four children, writing more of his books, and taking long walks on the Massachusetts shore line with Jackie. Even as he passed 50, Jack remained an old horn dog at heart. There was nothing sexier to him than making love to his wife, the most beautiful woman in the world as far as he was concerned, at the very edge of the American continent, with the sun passing overhead as it headed for California and the ocean seemed to wash away his cares with the tides. 1974 marked 11 years of devotion and utter fidelity in their marriage. Jack had been a very good boy, indeed. But even the best behaved, most loving of husbands had to eventually come to grips with their own mortality. Even a living legend like John F. Kennedy could not escape the looming specter of death, much as he had been proving the bastard wrong throughout his life.
By ‘74, something had changed in him, he could tell. He was no longer springing out of bed in the morning. His laps in the pool grew ever harder to maintain until eventually, he stopped trying to do them altogether, and contented himself with just soaking his horribly aching muscles in the tub for hours at a time. More than the aches, Kennedy was frustrated by just how weak he felt. Even walking up and down the stairs seemed to leave him winded, and his previous stomach issues returned until they became a nearly constant nuisance. Even with access to the best doctors money could buy, the best the former President could get was: “this was going to happen eventually.” Modern medicine had performed several minor miracles on Jack Kennedy. His Presidency had been one, as had his heroics in World War II. Money and connections, personal courage and a strong moral compass, all these had served him well, but the physical makeup of his body was tired and his natural defenses were beginning to give out. Addison’s and his other conditions sapped him of his energy, and by the end of the year, he would largely be confined to a wheelchair, as his father had been near the end of his life. Jackie insisted he cut back on his public appearances severely, which also frustrated him to no end. The former President loved to see the American people, absorb the love and adoration they had for him written plain across their faces. He was their conquering hero, and he never grew tired of fighting for them, for their causes. Whether appearing to speak in person at events to benefit charities and veterans’ groups, or calling Bobby or Ted to pitch ideas for legislation to them, President Kennedy’s retirement had never been anything but an active one. Only medical necessity could ever force that to change, and unfortunately, it did. Increasingly reclusive, and forced to dictate the remainder of his book, The People’s History of the United States of America (which would go on to be a bestseller and win Kennedy his second Pulitzer Prize when it was released on the nation’s bicentennial on July 4th, 1976) to a scribe, the former President made the decision to address the issue of his health with his brothers when they came to the Kennedy Compound for his 57th birthday, on May 29th, 1974.
As always with the Kennedys, appearances were kept up and emotions were deeply buried until the brothers could meet behind closed doors. JFK smiled, joked, and led the family in grace before supper, sang with them after dessert was carried away, and even threw the football around with his nieces and nephews a little before he was taken to his wheelchair by Jackie and led to his office, which had once belonged to his father, so he could speak to Bobby and Teddy in private. Once the children and wives were away, outside playing in the late spring warmth, and Jack felt he could speak freely, he flatly laid out his condition. He began his explanation with an apology, telling his brothers that this was likely the last family event he would be able to fully put together himself. Jackie would continue to be a big help, as would Caroline and John Jr., now 17 and 14 respectively, but he admitted that he no longer felt like he and his immediate family could handle the job of Kennedy Family Patriarch alone. Keeping accounts not just on personal matters, but business and political careers of the various branches alone was a monumental task. Add in JFK’s feeling that he had to give freely of himself as a piece of political capital to each of his family members’ campaigns and initiatives, and it was a wonder that he ever had any time for himself to begin with. He apologized also more specifically because he knew, “I’m about to make each of your lives harder.” Bobby and Ted were both up for reelection to their senate seats in ‘76, and unlike he had four years earlier, Jack would not be able to actively campaign for either of them in the race to come. “I wish things were different, believe me I do.” Jack’s gray-green eyes were replete with bitter sadness as he spoke. “But it seems advice is going to be the best that I can offer this time around. Maybe appear in a TV spot if Jackie lets me out of this damned chair.”
Bobby kept his face nondescript, a skill he’d become quite adept at over his years of working with Jack and living with their father. “It’s alright, Jack. Your health and comfort are the most important things, now. You’ve done so much for us already.” He put his hand on his elder brother’s shoulder and could feel his sorrow through his Harvard sweater. “We’ll make you proud out there. I promise. Won’t we Teddy?”
The youngest Kennedy boy averted his brothers’ eyes. It didn’t take a room of intellectually gifted statesmen to tell that he was deeply uncomfortable with everything going on around him. Bobby took note of this, though he said nothing for the time being. He didn’t want to burden Jack with this even as his life seemed to be coming apart around him. The Senator from New York hugged his brother and told him that he would always be there if there was anything, anything he ever needed. Jack thanked him and looked him hard in the eye. “There’s a storm coming for us, Bobby.” The former President said with a strong note of foreboding. “I only hope that we’re strong enough to weather it.” Perhaps heroically, perhaps foolishly, he tried to smile. “I suspect however, that we are.” Jack’s brothers said goodnight to him and kissed Jackie on the cheek as they thanked her for a wonderful evening and watched her lead her husband off to bed.
Bobby rolled up his shirtsleeves and ran his hands through his hair. He was tired, stressed, and more than a little angry at his little brother’s behavior. He turned and watched as Ted filled up a glass with Jameson whiskey, his hand shaking nervously the entire time. “Teddy,” he barked. “What the hell is wrong with you? That was our big brother in there and you wouldn’t even look at him!” Ted said nothing, but met his brother’s eyes for a second, then took a drink from his glass. The middle Kennedy went on. “This is hard on all of us, but don’t you think it has to be hardest on him? He went from the leader of the free world, the most powerful man on Earth, to hardly being able to walk without his wife’s help. How do you think that would make anybody feel?”
Ted knocked back the rest of the whiskey and fired back with vitriol. “I don’t know Bobby, you’ll have to tell me! You and Jack were always the smart ones. You’re the one that’s going to carry his name all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in a few years. Then, some distant day, you’ll be in the same place he is, and I expect you’ll be able to give a great lesson on how hard it is to be nearly universally loved.”
Bobby took a step toward his brother. “What is that supposed to mean?”
The youngest Kennedy laughed and poured himself another drink. “I’m just the boozy, nice guy Kennedy. You and Jack got to inherit all of Dad’s good sense and Mom’s restraint, but it seems like I’m the one who gets the short end there too.”
“What are you talking about?”
Another gulp, another pour. “I’m not a great man, Bobby. I know Jack wants me to be, but I’m not. I’m a fun, likeable guy you feel like you could have a beer with. I don’t inspire anyone, I don’t rewrite the course of history. I go down to Congress and schmooze and get budgets passed on time. Now that’s good enough for just about any Tom, Dick, or Harry, so long as their last name isn’t Kennedy. But your brother becomes the most successful President in thirty years and all of the sudden, everyone thinks you’re Superman. They expect you to throw your weight around and change the world as we know it. It’s too much.” Another attempted gulp. Bobby stopped him.
“Teddy, I think you’ve had enough.”
Ted laughed again. “Oh do you, Bob? Let me ask you this: you and Ethel still fucking every night?”
Bobby’s face went red, ever the First Irish Puritan. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“It’s been a while since you’ve had a kid, that’s all.” Ted shook his head and had his drink, swallowing hard. “There again, I fail to measure up to my famous brothers. You and Ethel have always been happy as a pair of clams. Even Jack and Jackie managed to sort things out after Patrick passed.” He paused, tears forming in his eyes. “Bobby, it’s been a month since Joan would even sleep in the same room as me. She says I disgust her, that I’m a disappointment and she wishes she never married me at all. Bobby, our marriage is failing.”
The anger melted from Bobby’s face and was instantly replaced with sympathy. “Oh Teddy…” He tried to put his arms around his brother and comfort him. “It’s going to be okay. You’re not a disappointment to anyone. We’re all just… good at different things.”
Ted backed away. “Easy for you to say when you’re good at everything. Your bills get passed, your voice is wanted on every appointment. Not everyone likes you, but everyone in the Beltway respects you, whether they’ll admit it or not.” He wiped away his tears and set down his glass. “I’m not good like you and Jack are either. I’m the reason my marriage is failing, and pretty soon…” He looked out the window at his wife, who was making small talk with Ethel and trying to pass as contented. “The whole world is going to hear about it.”
A little more than a year earlier, the Kennedys, Bobby and Ted, had been in Los Angeles to help longtime family friend, Jimmy Roosevelt campaign in the recall election against Ronald Reagan’s successor as Governor, Republican Edwin Reinecke. Polls were definitely in Jimmy’s favor, and for the first time in the long, difficult career of FDR’s eldest son, it looked like his fortunes were finally about to change. A weekend-long trip of the state for the brothers included speeches at various organizations and whistle stops in several of the major cities and concluded with a massive fundraiser party to be held at the home of Frank Sinatra, a longtime Democratic Party supporter and friend of the Kennedy Clan. At the party, Bobby handled a lot of the heavy political deal making while Teddy enjoyed the offerings at the bar and generally had a good time. He chatted up Sinatra, made a strong first impression on jazz saxophonist Billy Clinton (whom he suggested should one day run for Mayor of Los Angeles), and finally, met a woman who would change his life forever. Sharon Tate Polanski was 31 years old in the spring of 1973, 11 years Ted’s junior and just as beautiful as ever. Hot on the heels of her success in such films as 1973’s Westworld, 1972’s Henry VIII (as Catherine of Aragon), and 1971’s Johnny Got His Gun, an adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s acclaimed anti-war novel of the same name, Tate was seen as one of the preeminent “smart beauty queens” of early 70’s Hollywood, and she captivated Kennedy from the moment he met her. Not only was she blonde, buxom, and beautiful, she had a wit and personality about her that left the youngest Kennedy spellbound. He spent much of the evening conversing with her about her political leanings and sharing glass after glass of champagne. Gradually, their conversations turned flirtatious, one thing lead to another, and by the end of the night, the two were in a guest room of Sinatra’s mansion making manic, passionate love to each other. Though for most politicians, this would have been little more than a (particularly noteworthy) one night stand, for Kennedy this only the first night of a long, torrid love affair. The depth of Tate’s feelings for the Senator are difficult to discern entirely, though they appear to have been genuine as well, as she made the effort to vacation near the capital or Massachusetts whenever possible. She would make an excuse to her husband, Director Roman Polanski, about “wanting to see the Atlantic” or “take in the nation’s capital”, but the reality was much more scandalous, and a one-time fling in a Sinatra guest room turned into something much deeper and more potentially damning.
Joan Kennedy caught on before Roman Polanski did. The director was often preoccupied with his rather busy filmmaking schedule and hardly paid any mind to the thought that his wife might be having an affair. For Kennedy’s wife however, the prospect was all too real from the very first time she saw her husband and Tate photographed together at that party in Los Angeles. She had heard from Jackie how awful Jack had been to her early in their marriage, and had even heard the rumors that Bobby was a bit of a flirt in his day as well. Joan also remembered the inappropriate and disgusting advances Ted’s father had made on her on their wedding day of all times. Joan was privy to one of the sad, dark realities of being a man in the Kennedy family: sexual conquests were seen as a mark of power, prestige, and manhood. Jack seemed to have outgrown his adolescent attitudes toward sex through the painful shared trauma he and Jackie had gone through in ‘63, and Bobby’s religiosity seemed to keep his in check to begin with, but her husband seemed to have no such qualms and so happily carried on his father’s “sinful little habit”. Even after Joan confronted Ted about the affair, having hired a private investigator to tail the senator one night after work to a hotel in D.C., who caught more than one damning photograph of he and Tate in each other’s arms, she discovered that Sharon Tate wasn’t the only woman her husband was seeing behind her back. Joan was heartbroken and immediately demanded a divorce. Ted tried to reason with her. He insisted that this was not as big of a deal as she thought it was. “I don’t love her the same way I do you.” He claimed. “She’s not the mother of my children, you are.” These excuses did little to stem Joan’s anger, but they did keep her from telling anyone about what she knew for the time being. That is, until her PI recorded a conversation between her husband and Tate, in which Kennedy told Tate: “I love you more than anything. More than my job, more than my wife, all of it. Sharon, you’re my everything.” That was on May 23rd, 1974, and Joan told Ted that not only was she filing for a divorce, but she had instructed her PI to take the story to the press. For the second time in three years, the Kennedys would be at the center of a national sex scandal. And unlike his beloved brother Jack, Ted had neither titanic public achievements nor a consistent track record of repentance to hide behind. His dirty laundry was about to air out in the open for all to see, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to stop it.
Ted’s marital troubles were surely going to come up as a campaign issue as he faced reelection, but he wasn’t the only Kennedy who would have troubles on the road to 1976.
If there was a single Democrat in the United States Senate who enjoyed, even relished being a maverick from the party’s establishment in 1974, it was the junior Senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy. A fierce dove on foreign policy, McCarthy had been proud to be one of only two dozen Senators to vote against the Jackson Resolution to send American troops to Rhodesia, and was consistently critical of both the New Frontier Liberal and Southern Populist wings of his own party, not to mention a near constant critic of the Bush Administration and its “Republican enablers” in Congress. Though widely disliked in Washington for distancing himself from both of the party’s preeminent factions, McCarthy’s star began to rise significantly after the 1972 Election, where the Southern wing had failed to stop the GOP and the “New Frontier Coalition” had failed to stop Lyndon Johnson from securing the nomination. Though he and Senator Robert Kennedy agreed on many key areas of policy, there was great personal animosity between the two men. McCarthy considered the Kennedy family “a bunch of phony Catholics, giving all Irish-Americans a bad name with their ‘slick’ version of democratic principles and ‘made for TV’ politics.” He was a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, who supported the principles of the New Deal and the New Frontier, though he would never credit the Kennedys with the creation of the latter, a peaceful foreign policy and continuation of the war on poverty, and on the big social issue of the day was against abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the health of the mother. He claimed that the Kennedys’ refusal to oppose abortion proved his claim about the “phoniness” of their Catholicism, and confirmed that they put political achievement over ethical rightness. McCarthy was also virulently anti-immigrant, and complained that "illegals have the potential to wreck our already fragile industries." Needless to say, he was a complicated man.
As 1974 wore on, the worsening energy crisis caused the recession to deepen and President Bush’s approval ratings to finally dip after nearly a year of relative highs. The midterms were approaching, and then the next Presidential election would be here before anyone knew it and the President was looking not only beatable, but downright weak. Democratic party insiders were already scouting their ranks for names of potential candidates, especially as that of Robert Kennedy seemed to loom large over all the others, a colossus waiting to be laid low or else coronated. McCarthy was not about to stand by and let another Kennedy nomination happen, not without a fight anyway. The Minnesotan began to grow his political star by appearing more frequently on Beltway talk shows and speaking with increased frequency and passion on the issues which seemed to divide himself from Kennedy and other liberal Democrats ahead of ‘76. He gave speeches stressing his opposition to U.S. aid for Israel, which he considered the leading cause of the oil embargo and the current economic woes crippling the United States with fear. “Ours is currently a foreign policy of what is convenient instead of what is right.” McCarthy said to a crowd of cheering college students at UC Berkeley when he visited the College in June of ‘74. “This must change if we are ever going to claim to be the leader of the free world again.” New Frontier Democrats were getting nervous. As McCarthy’s star continued to rise, the Ted Kennedy-Sharon Tate scandal hit the front page of every major paper in the country, and Ted’s messy divorce seemed to drag on for months leading to the midterms. Every Republican in the country made an effort to drag the Kennedy name through the mud, associating it with decadence and “moral corruption” and forcing every Kennedy-aligned Democrat to either distance themselves from that label or defend it, neither a particularly appealing option in what was poised to be a tight election year. In the midst of all this, and just as the summer of 1974 was hitting its hottest, a veritable political gold mine was dropped in McCarthy’s lap by an anonymous source from within the Department of Justice: evidence that Robert Kennedy had clamped down on civil liberties, and given disgraced former FBI Director Hoover permission to wiretap thousands of Americans, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders during Kennedy’s time as his brother’s Attorney General in the early 60’s. McCarthy had been hoping for just this sort of story to discredit Kennedy’s candidacy before it even began. He could not have asked for anything better.
At a highly publicized press conference on July 27th, McCarthy revealed the evidence he had been given and called for the U.S. Senate to investigate Senator Kennedy for his possible abuses of power during his time at the Justice Department. The initial findings of McCarthy’s source were sparse, but damning. It seemed that until he had “wisened up” on Civil Rights around 1963, Robert Kennedy had been just fine with signing off on Hoover’s bullying, dictatorial tactics in order to save his brother’s reputation and chances for reelection from whatever documentation Hoover had on JFK. In the time since, Bobby had long cultivated a reputation as a tireless fighter for American minorities. Much of his base of support came not just from Irish Catholics, but from Latinos, African Americans, and women, all communities who would likely be devastated by these revelations about Kennedy’s conduct. Though he and Jack had both personally come a long way toward being two of the nation’s most tireless champions for civil rights and civil liberties during their time in office, RFK could not deny that the findings about his first two years as Attorney General were mostly true. Later that same day, Senator Kennedy and his chief of staff, civil rights icon and former Freedom Rider John Lewis called a press conference of their own, where Kennedy solemnly and sincerely apologized for his past behavior and submitted himself for investigation if the Senate wished to have one. Republicans and Southern Democrats rejoiced and pounced at the opportunity to take “Prince Bobby”, arguably the most popular politician in the country, down a peg. Though the eventual three month long investigation would turn up nothing which would damn Kennedy any more than the initial report had, his reputation and image did take a massive, direct hit from McCarthy’s well researched and well planned attack. The story was a bombshell and forced Kennedy into a defensive position before he’d even decided for sure whether he was going to run for President or not in 1976.
Bobby was forced to abandon any hopes he had for running for President in the next two years. Between Ted’s nasty divorce filling the tabloids, Jack being too sick to help campaign or dispel the cloud hanging over his head, and the litany of his former allies running for the hills in the wake of the Senate investigation, Bobby struggled to see a clear way he could make it out of this mess and be reelected to the Senate, let alone be elected President. It wasn’t in the Kennedy Family Doctrine of politics to do anything if you didn’t believe you had a good chance of making it out on top. It didn’t seem like a good time to test the wisdom of that dogma, with the family’s fortunes on the downswing and all. He shared these thoughts of despair only with his wife, Ethel, and John Lewis. He refused to tell Jack for fear of breaking his big brother’s heart. Jack still firmly believed that Bobby was going to be President someday, just as he had been. Bobby couldn’t let him down, not now.
With RFK implicitly out of the picture for ‘76 and struggling to recover as he prepared to defend his senate seat against an invigorated, if yet to be named Republican challenger, the Democratic Party’s field for leadership was suddenly wide open. Though he hadn’t announced anything yet, it would be uncouth to do so before even the midterms, Senator Eugene McCarthy was clearly the biggest winner of Robert Kennedy’s fall from grace, and began to position himself more and more as a possible answer to the prayers of the nation’s liberal dreamers. In this pursuit he was joined by several other prominent Democrats, including Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, whom many saw as a potential candidate for a second go at the White House after his narrow defeat by Lyndon Johnson in ‘72; as well as the recently elected Governor of California, James Roosevelt II, son of the legendary FDR and the last scion of his father’s political dynasty. Though he was already 67 years old in 1974, and had been defeated in numerous high profile races in the past, Roosevelt was nonetheless inspiring millions of devoted followers and evoking memories of his father with his characteristically eloquent, witty oratory, and his calls for reform and government assistance to counter the worsening recession. As the 1970’s turned darker and the people looked for leaders, it was clear that the next few years were going to produce a large crop for them to choose from.
Next Time on Blue Skies in Camelot: Terror Strikes Deep