The Kennedy 'Curse'

April 09, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. As hordes of journalists crowd toward Palm Beach, the tired old rhetoric is renewed about a ''Kennedy curse.''

A Kennedy relative is informally accused of rape there, and the circumstances are not edifying even if the charge proves false -- Edward Kennedy and a son and a nephew were hanging out at a bar on Good Friday until its closing time after 3 a.m., when they invited unattached women over to continue the drinking at the Kennedy compound. There were touches of Chappaquiddick of the sort Senator Kennedy should have learned, after that tragedy, to avoid.

But the blanket assault on ''Kennedy kids'' is hardly justified by the record. Younger members of the many-branched and prolific Kennedy family have had trouble with drugs, sex and school grades. But it would be hard to prove that this occurred, in any disproportionate numbers, among Kennedys as opposed to other young people of similar age and social and economic background.

In any large family the odds are that there will be failures and run-ins with authority at home or at school or in the courts. Think of any large family you know, and tell me if it is free of troubled children in one or more of its branches.

Even in small families, even in more ''average'' middle-class families, there have been scandals or broken marriages or drug or alcohol abuse. Presidents Johnson and Carter had alcoholic brothers, and President Ford had an alcoholic wife. President Nixon's brother was touched by financial scandal, like President Bush's son. President Reagan had a daughter open in her drug use. Divorce has affected the Bushes and the Reagans. These are not even large, or, at the outset, terribly affluent or mobile families.

Given that record, and given the much larger pool of children and in-laws and peripheral relatives for the Kennedys, it was inevitable that some number would yield to the temptations of the time when they grew up. There is no need to bring a special Kennedy weakness or doom into the account. I have known large Republican families, more religious and conformist than the Kennedys, who have known at least as much personal weakness, failure and tragedy.

One of the things that makes life in any large family resemble a soap opera is the constant occurrence of sickness, accident, personal transgression and death. Some say the Kennedys are specially troubled by the loss of so many of their father figures, leaving only Edward Kennedy to lead the family. Admittedly, two of Joseph Kennedy's sons were murdered. But in a large family many deaths occur, and father and mother of the particular child are not displaced. As a matter of fact, the death of a parent disrupts life less in families where so much of the upbringing tends to be done by nannies, tutors, boarding schools and servants.

Strong as was the impact of Joseph Kennedy on his sons, one of the revelations of Doris Kearns Goodwin's excellent book ''The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys'' was her demonstration that the Kennedy children saw relatively little of their mother and father while growing up -- by comparison, at least, with what other children see. Is that, in itself, a cause for disturbance in the children? If so, then all Americans who reach a certain level of affluence must have a ''curse'' upon them.

The idea of a special doom for the Kennedys is the obverse of a notion that they have a special grace, that they have an inborn gift or right to lead in our democratic society. The two ideas are equally inane, because they are just the two sides of one lame-brained idea.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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