WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Last Tuesday, the same day police recommended that rape charges be brought against his nephew, Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy spoke at a ceremony honoring the recipients of this year's Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards. He spoke of the high ideals his late brother espoused and cried as he quoted one of the late senator's lines about sending forth a "ripple of hope."
Reporters asked him about the rape charges.
Several weeks ago, kicking off "Kennedy Legacy Week" at American University, Sen. Kennedy solemnly recalled historic peace initiatives launched by brother John F. Kennedy nearly three decades ago. Here, too, he stirred up poignant memories of the late president, halting at times to compose himself and fight back tears.
And here too, the audience chatter resonated with a different topic. And a different Kennedy legacy.
"How can he say all these things and live the kind of life he does?" whispered one student, referring to the stories of drinking and womanizing that have resurfaced recently as a result of a woman's charge that she was raped by William Kennedy Smith, the senator's nephew, at the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach, Fla.
"I hope he talks about the Palm Beach stuff," gossiped another.
Not surprisingly, the senator steered as far from Palm Beach as possible, completely avoiding the topic as well as reporters who might have had such non-legislative questions on their minds.
But whether he addresses the unpleasant issue or not, many believe such Kennedy scandals, which usually end up commanding bigger headlines than any political achievements, have tarnished the bright and shining Kennedy legacy, and reshaped, if not diminished, the legend.
"There's a whole younger generation who laughs when the London tabloids call the Kennedys 'America's uncrowned royal family,' " says syndicated columnist Carl Rowan, who was ambassador to Finland during the Kennedy administration. "A lot of Americans say hogwash to that."
"They're no more America's royalty than Phil Donahue," says David Horowitz, co-author of the 1984 bestseller, "The Kennedys: An American Drama."
This latest Palm Beach saga, along with previous crises including Chappaquiddick, in which Kennedy campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne was killed after Sen. Kennedy drove a car off a bridge, "chips away from their stature as heroes," says Jack Nachbar, professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "But it doesn't chip away at their role as celebrities. We like to read about them right next to Fergie's latest indiscretion."
To be sure, public fascination with the family has never waned. "The more prominent, the more quasi-mythological somebody is, the more interesting their downfall," says Mr. Nachbar. Each new stumble, he adds, "makes them even more fun than they were before."
But it is especially for younger generations that the legacy has turned from glory to gossip, many believe.
"People who don't remember the excitement of the Kennedy years, who didn't suffer through the assassinations of John and Robert, they're more likely to say, 'Gee, these people aren't what we thought they were,' " says Julian Bond, former civil rights activist and Atlanta legislator. "Of course, they had no idea what they were."
Kennedy fans, he says, "remain fans. If these [rape] charges [against William Kennedy Smith] turn out to be true, I feel badly about Willy. But I don't even know Willy. He's associated by blood to three men I admired a great deal. But they're not responsible for what he did and his actions don't reflect on them in any way."
Tony Podesta, a Democratic political operative who's been involved in Kennedy campaigns, believes the Palm Beach episode -- which began with Mr. Smith, Sen. Kennedy and his son Patrick spending a late night at a bar -- will have little effect on public sentiment toward the famous family.
"The Kennedy family is thought to work hard and play hard," says Mr. Podesta. "When people look beyond the screeching headlines to make a judgment, this won't look like anything different. This was not the first time Senator Kennedy's been to a cocktail lounge or the first time it's been reported. The Women's Christian Temperance Union has never been an important part of his coalition."
But even those who are important constituents -- the voters of Massachusetts -- appear unswayed by this latest episode. According to a recent Boston Globe poll, 25 percent of those Massachusetts registered voters surveyed said the rape case caused them to look less favorably upon the Kennedy family, compared to 69 percent who said their opinions were unchanged by the charges.
Steven Stark, a columnist and Harvard Law School professor, says that the national consensus may be less forgiving. He believes the "diminishing of the Kennedy legend" has been going on for years, and was evident in Sen. Kennedy's dismal showing in the 1980 presidential primary race.