The Youngest, Prettiest Brother Plays Out the String

October 04, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- You would think Ted Kennedy was an aging beauty queen, not a senior senator.

A talk show host compares the senator's nose to that of W.C. Fields. A reporter can't get through a story without referring to the man's girth and age. At a lunch table in downtown Boston, two young women talk about his appearance as if he were a caricature. At a rally, a supporter turns and says with dismay, ''He looks like a homeless man in a thousand dollar suit.''

And at a fund-raiser, the senator himself makes an embarrassing attempt at self-deprecating humor, ''I may not be the youngest candidate and I may not be the thinnest candidate, but I'm the fighting candidate.''

If Ted Kennedy were a woman, the obsessive commentary on the theme of one man's ''lost looks'' would be angrily dismissed as sexist. The ombudsman's phone would ring with outrage.

But in Massachusetts these days, people are justifying this talk as if they were talking about the portrait of Dorian Gray not Edward Moore Kennedy. As if the text for the ''character issue'' were writ on a man's face. As if they were reading a thousand miles of bad road on his 62-year-old face.

These are not easy days for Ted Kennedy. He's in what every commentator describes as a fight for his life, as if Mitt Romney were a melanoma and not an unknown newcomer running against him. Kennedy is neck and neck with this 47-year-old, a man unencumbered by a record, blessed with a chiseled profile and a handsome family more Kennedyesque than Mr. Kennedy's own.

So far, Mr. Romney, a Republican, a Mormon, a businessman, a son of Michigan's George Romney, has offered little more than flash-card positions in ads that flip words like welfare and crime before the public's distracted eye. But he is Not-Kennedy, running on a platform of change in a year when the voters are deeply into do-it-yourself term limits.

A longtime Kennedy supporter glumly describes this race in the simplest, biblical terms, ''There came a generation that knew not Joseph.'' Nor Jack. Nor Bobby. A third of the voters weren't born when Teddy was elected to the Senate in 1962 as the youngest, prettiest Kennedy.

Today they know JFK Jr. as a hunk. They know JFK Sr. as a philanderer as well as president. They associate Teddy, the youngest of the brothers who never grew old, with carousing as much as with health care, Chappaquiddick as much as civil liberties. Mr. Kennedy not only carries baggage from the past, he carries shrapnel, some of it from self-inflicted wounds.

These days on the campaign trail, he travels attached like Velcro to his second wife Vicki. She's the leading figure in the moral narrative that would portray him as ''saved by the love of a good woman.'' But the same man who can be warm and witty and well-informed is running a lackluster campaign -- at times testy, defensive, distracted.

The sticky, uncomfortable fact of this campaign is that it's not really between Kennedy and Romney so much as it is between Kennedy and Kennedy. It's between what the senator has done in public life and in private life.

Buried in the polling data is the ambivalence of many people who share his policies and doubt his character, find him effective at work and flawed at play. Many are women who appreciate his leadership in the Senate -- on women's rights, abortion, family leave -- but disapprove the life he led outside it.

I have aired my own criticisms of Senator Kennedy over the years. But I am struck by how the character pendulum has swung until it may be poised to strike a lethal blow against a man who has been a dependable champion of social justice. When JFK was president, we knew too little about a public person's private life. Now private acts can dwarf public acts, the way image can dwarf policy. Character has become a household word.

This campaign is by no means over. Mr. Romney is still an unknown who appears most fit for the job if you define fitness in its aerobic sense. Ties to Senator Kennedy are real and Massachusetts may recoil from delivering the head of this man to the haters who've been clamoring for it all these years.

But there is a whiff of defeat in the fall air. The challenger talks about Mr. Kennedy as if he were history. The people are gossiping about how many years this last brother has under his belt. In Massachusetts, the Senate race looks more and more like a beauty contest.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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