Even a Kennedy is subject to political winds

August 01, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

OUR fascination with the Kennedys looks like it will continue well into a fourth decade.

All those hours of nonstop television coverage on the crash of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane reflect the emotional attachment -- and insatiable interest -- millions of Americans still hold for the Kennedy family.

Yes, television networks overdid it. The coverage was vapid and excessive. Young Mr. Kennedy wasn't an elected official, a giant in the arts or a seminal social or civic figure.

He was, though, in the eyes of ratings-conscious news executives, "good copy."

This Kennedy was telegenic, led a high-profile social life and sought publicity for his magazine. Television couldn't resist a story of yet another tragedy in America's royal political family, especially one centered on the lone male heir of a slain president and his glamorous wife.

Baby boomer memories

Many Americans fondly recall those brief Camelot years of the Kennedy presidency, and those famous photos of toddler John-John: In happy times, playing under the president's desk; in mournful times, saluting the flag on his slain father's coffin.

Word of the Kennedy plane crash put the family back in the news. It also raised public awareness of Maryland's connections to the family.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has the inside track in the next election for governor. Her cousin's death prompted an outpouring of compassion -- and frequent mention in news reports.

This underscores the difficulty other candidates for governor will have in taking on Ms. Townsend in 2002. Her name helped her secure a spot on Parris Glendening's 1994 ticket. Now her family ties have given her another boost.

True, Ms. Townsend has never been severely tested in political Annapolis. Her one foray into the General Assembly with a controversial "truth in sentencing" bill ended in failure.

Trounced by Bentley

In her one solo political run, she lost badly in 1986 to former GOP Rep. Helen Bentley in Baltimore County's 2nd Congressional District. She drew only 41 percent of the vote.

All this may not matter to voters. They care not how poorly Ms. Townsend performed in an election that few remember, or her lack of proven skills in dealing with the state legislature.

What counts is that she is a sincere, outgoing politician; a member of a Democratic administration that has benefited from a prolonged wave of economic prosperity, and that she brings a hint of Kennedy glamour to Maryland.

The successes of the Glendening governorship rub off on her. On what issue does a potential foe -- be it Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger, Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan or Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry -- launch an attack?

Things have never looked better for Ms. Townsend. But 2002 is a long way off. So much could change.

Next year, for instance, Americans could elect a Republican president. He and a Republican Congress could well cut federal spending on domestic programs and shift more financial burdens to the states.

That, in turn, might force the Glendening-Townsend team to make unpopular program cuts or raise taxes. She might not look like a sure shot to win the governorship if that were to happen.

Or the nation's economic boom could collapse, wiping out state government surpluses and prompting belt-tightening measures unpopular with voters.

Or the political pendulum could swing back to the right by 2002, leaving Ms. Townsend and the liberal Kennedy clan out of sync with voters. A popular Republican such as Rep. Bob Ehrlich of Baltimore County then might pose a tough challenge.

Ms. Townsend's star is still rising. She has enhanced visibility. But it is too early to anoint her as Maryland's next governor. Political fortunes can turn quite rapidly.

Just ask George Bush (the father), who seemed to have a lock on re-election as president after success in the Persian Gulf war, but fell into public disfavor when the economy soured.

Or Gov. Harry Hughes, who looked like a heavy favorite to become a U.S. senator before he ran into the savings and loan crisis.

In U.S. politics, it helps to be a Kennedy. But it won't assure you victory or insulate you from the normal ebbs and flows of the political seas.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

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