Smith rape case carried Kennedy baggage: Famous family was put on trial again

December 13, 1991|By John Aloysius Farrell | John Aloysius Farrell,Boston Globe

WASHINGTON -- In eight months of searing coverage, the rape case against William Kennedy Smith focused constant attention on his uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and the rest of his family and spurred a jolting reappraisal of their contributions.

In some ways, the case of Florida vs. Smith represented a Pyrrhic victory for the Democratic senator from Massachusetts and other members of America's most famous political family, analysts suggest.

"This verdict is almost beside the point," said Todd Domke, a Republican political consultant. "There were so many things that came out that were not part of the proceedings.

"He rousted the boys out of bed to the bar, knowing that his own son had once suffered from a drinking and drug problem. The larger jury out there will still have in mind the three women that were unable to come to the witness stand" who also reportedly were going to accuse Mr. Smith of attacks against them.

Democrats appeared more forgiving but no less realistic.

"I think there's a lot of anger out there, particularly among women," said Michael Shea, a Democratic political consultant. "An intensification of the anger we saw after the Clarence Thomas hearings -- that will be the emotional response."

Aside from the detailed allegations against Mr. Smith, the days since the infamous Easter weekend have brought news that the senator's sons, Edward and Patrick, both have needed treatment for substance abuse; that his former wife, Joan, continues to suffer from alcoholism; and that Senator Kennedy struggles with his own use of alcohol.

Revisionist historians, television gossip shows and supermarket tabloids have used the Smith trial as an excuse to publish allegations of drug use, alcohol abuse and philandering by President John F. Kennedy, Sen.Robert F. Kennedy, their father Joseph P. Kennedy, and by some among Mr. Smith's generation of Kennedy children.

No image could withstand such a barrage, much less the fiercely partisan, high-profile Kennedys. Observers from both parties agreed that the senator and his family had been hurt by the controversy.

Mr. Domke said: "This process has played a big part of the decline ofTed Kennedy and the demythologizing of the Kennedy family. I don't think he recoups all he's lost."

Particularly damaging, said Edward F. Jesser, a Democratic analyst, was Senator Kennedy's passive role during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Justice Thomas' Supreme Court nomination, during which the senator seemed to concede that he had forfeited moral authority because of his past behavior.

The Thomas case, Mr. Jesser said, briefly erased the positive side of the equation. Lost was the liberal champion; what remained was the rake. Since that time, Mr. Jesser said, Mr. Kennedy has rebounded.

He made favorable impressions in a mea culpa speech at Harvard, in negotiating the civil rights bill with the White House and in his own testimony at the Smith trial.

Noting how Massachusetts voters have forgiven Representatives Gerry Studds and Barney Frank for sexual transgressions, Mr. Shea suggested: "There is resurrection."

Mr. Kennedy's ability while on the witness stand in the Smith case to put his late-night actions into a family context under hostile questioning will help immeasurably, Mr. Shea said.

"He personally handled himself very well and gave another version of the story than the one we've been hearing for a long time. Obviously, the right wing in Washington and elsewhere were licking their chops, hoping he'd be roasted alive, but he obviously was not and helped his own political future," the Democratic consultant said.

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