Moral Message Oldest Kennedy grandchild tries to balance demands of public office with life in her famous family

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

August 31, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron

Kathleen Kennedy was 12 when her uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was killed in Dallas.

Two days after the slaying, her father, Robert F. Kennedy, wrote Kathleen a note urging her to help care for her younger brother Joe and the president's young son, John.

"As the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren, you have a particular responsibility now - a special responsibility to John and Joe," Bobby Kennedy wrote his daughter. "Be kind to others and work for your country. Love, Daddy."

Thirty-four years later, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland's lieutenant governor, has learned that it is a lot easier to serve the country than to take responsibility for the members of her famous family.

Once called "the nun" by her younger siblings, Townsend, 46, has had to watch Joe and another brother, Michael, suffer through public criticism of their morality and judgment in recent months.

For a woman who has championed mandatory community service for high school students, "coerced abstinence" for drug abusers and character education for youngsters, it has been painful.

"Obviously, it's been a tough time for my family. It's been a trying time for the people it's affected," Town-send says diplomatically after returning last week from a vacation in Massachusetts with her extended family.

Michael, 39, is alleged to have had sex with his children's baby sitter beginning when she was 14. He has admitted only "serious mistakes" in the matter.

Meanwhile, brother Joe, 44, who is now U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II of Massachusetts, was ridiculed after his ex-wife published a book decrying the Catholic annulment he received of their 12-year marriage. He announced Thursday that he was dropping his expected bid for governor of Massachusetts, saying he concluded the race would focus on family problems.

The brothers' troubles had already prompted a flurry of national publications to re-examine the new generation of Kennedys. Newsweek labeled them "A Dynasty in Decline," a provocative headline that seemed unfair to a high-achieving group.

Townsend holds a special place among them. She is the oldest, and the only female Kennedy to hold elective office.

L Within the family, she remains Joe and Michael's big sister.

"Certainly I play that role," she says. "Clearly it's a position that doesn't go away."

Townsend says she and her family have talked a lot about the recent problems.

Joe, she says with no hesitation, has been treated unfairly. After all, it was his wife, Sheila, who wanted the divorce. And he shouldn't be blamed for seeking an annulment to remain in good standing within the Roman Catholic Church. After all, she says, 50,000 Americans a year receive annulments.

As for Michael and the baby sitter, she has little to say publicly. Any criticisms will stay within the family.

"Everybody knows it's been difficult," she says. "He certainly does."

If her brothers and sisters once kidded her about being a nun, Townsend today might better be referred to as the smiling but stern Mother Superior of state government.

Her husband, David Townsend, was asked a few months ago what his wife reads for fun. That is, what would she crack open under an umbrella on Cape Cod this summer?

The answer: Kathleen does not read "for fun." She reads, her husband said, to learn and explore - serious works with a point.

She practices government the same way, delivering a moral message at every turn.

Kids need values instilled at school, to reinforce what they may or may not be getting at home, she preaches. High school students must be required to do community service to teach them the value of public involvement. Juvenile justice, she says, should be handed out in open court to cast public "shame" on children who break the law.

"I do have very high standards," she says. "I believe people can be great. I believe we're all children of God. We all have something special inside us that can be reached."

Such lessons were instilled at a young age.

Townsend's earliest memories revolve around politics and government. As a young girl, she went with her mother to the U.S. Capitol to watch her father take part in congressional hearings on union corruption. Around the dinner table, the children were quizzed on current events.

They were also reminded of the privilege and the special place they enjoyed in the world. Her father, returning from a trip to explore Mississippi poverty, told his children of the extreme conditions he had seen.

"Do you realize how lucky you are?" Bobby Kennedy asked them.

Adds Townsend: "We were told we had a responsibility. I clearly grew up with parents who set very high standards for us."

Unpolished and exuberant, Townsend has gone through some rough on-the-job training as Maryland's lieutenant governor.

There have been well intentioned moments she would surely like to forget.

Such as the conference she called to highlight the 10,000th person to go through Maryland's home detention program.

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