“It’s a tough time,” Kathleen Kennedy Townsend tells me. “It’s very sad.”
The Democratic body politic has a throbbing hangover this week after Attorney General Martha Coakley’s humiliating loss to state Senator Scott Brown in the special Massachusetts election to replace Townsend’s late uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy. And the 58-year-old Townsend, Robert F. Kennedy’s eldest child and the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, is feeling frustrated and glum.
Inconceivably, a Republican is about to take the seat that her Uncle Ted held for nearly five decades as the liberal lion of the Senate. During the abbreviated six-week campaign, the model-handsome Brown, who once posed naked for Cosmopolitan magazine, vowed to be the crucial 41st vote to block Senate Democrats from passing the health-care reform that Senator Kennedy had identified—shortly before his death in August—as “the cause of my life.”
Coakley was “a candidate who apparently said she didn’t want to be cold,” Townsend says tartly. “That was such a strange thing to say.”
“What I really hope is that the Democrats in Congress and the Senate don’t lose faith and don’t get scared by what just happened,” his niece says. “Scott Brown said it himself—he voted for health care in Massachusetts. So this was not an election about health care. This was about people feeling that their elected officials are not being responsive. This was about the sense that the government wasn’t paying attention to people’s real needs—jobs and other issues that were important. There was a lot of anger, and that anger was directed toward the government. ”
Yet so far, Townsend says ruefully, the Dems do seem frightened and faithless: “They’re taking exactly the wrong message from this.”
If Tuesday’s debacle in Massachusetts embarrassed the national party and posed a threat to Barack Obama’s presidency, it is doubly hard for members of the Kennedy family who, in some cases, set aside their grief to stump for Coakley in the final two weeks. Among those who campaigned in the desperate home stretch were Rep. Patrick Kennedy, from neighboring Rhode Island, his older brother Teddy Jr. from Connecticut, their cousin Joe Kennedy III, the former Boston congressman, and his 29-year-old son “Young Joe,” an assistant district attorney on Cape Cod.
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• Samuel P. Jacobs: Who Will Fall Next?First among equals was the senator’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, who phoned Coakley on the night of her primary victory Dec. 8 and offered to help in any way she could. Then Vicki Kennedy—an immensely popular figure who, by most accounts, would have won easily had she decided to run—cooled her heels for a crucial month before the Coakley campaign ultimately redeemed the offer. Baffled by the lack of follow-up, according to a family friend, she reached out again to Coakley, getting her on the phone and asking, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Coakley airily suggested that maybe she could hold a fundraiser. “Vicki was staggered,” this friend says.
Finally, according to the friend, Vicki received a phone call from an astonished David Axelrod. What’s going on? Why aren’t you out there campaigning for Coakley?, the White House political guru wanted to know. “Vicki explained that the Coakley campaign hadn’t given her a schedule,” the friend says, “and Axelrod told her, ‘Then we will take over your schedule.’ ” In the end, after some prodding, the Coakley campaign did take Vicki Kennedy off the bench and put her in the game, staging a widely covered January 7th endorsement event featuring her and Joe III, sending her out on the hustings, making her available for television interviews and producing an effective endorsement commercial for the final weekend. But it was too little, too late.
Mrs. Kennedy—who was unavailable for comment for this story—is said to share Kathleen Townsend’s raw feelings about the outcome. But unlike Uncle Ted’s widow, Townsend is outspoken about her anger and disappointment.
The attorney general was “a candidate who apparently said she didn’t want to be cold,” she says tartly. “That was such a strange thing to say.” Townsend is referring to Coakley’s now-infamous remark last week defending her low-key, apparently passionless campaign, much of it spent behind closed doors meeting with interest groups and office-holders, and mocking Brown’s street-level, happy-warrior approach. A reporter from the Boston Globe asked if she was being too passive. “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?'' Coakley bristled. “This is a special election. And I know that I have the support of [Salem mayor] Kim Driscoll. And I now know the members of the [Salem] School Committee, who know far more people than I could ever meet.''
“You’ve got to fight,” Townsend tells me. “That’s why Ted Kennedy was so great on jobs and health care and taking on the special interests. He fought for these things.” Townsend adds that her brother Joe, who considered and rejected the idea of running, “would have won handily. Because Joe is a fighter. He does things that are unpopular if he thinks they need to be done. And he would have stood in the cold shaking hands and he would know very clearly what the issues were.”
Then there were Coakley’s other disastrous gaffes, calling Red Sox pitching legend Curt Shilling a Yankee fan in one radio interview and suggesting in another that devout anti-abortion Catholics shouldn’t be working in hospital emergency rooms.
The Democrats, says Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, “are taking exactly the wrong message from this.”
“Look, it’s easy to criticize a losing candidate,” says Townsend who—having borne her share of criticism for her own unsuccessful 2002 campaign for governor of Maryland—claims to have sympathy for Coakley. Does she regret that her brother didn’t run? “It was a very hard decision for him to make,” she says. “I told him to do what was best for him. On the other hand, if Joe had gotten in and won, the Democrats might not have the wake-up call they need.”
Kennedy loyalist Edward Markey, who has represented suburban Boston in the House for more than three decades, is another experienced politician who would have been a very tough opponent for Brown. “Ed Markey would have won,” says longtime Ted Kennedy speechwriter Robert Shrum, who penned the famous “Dream Shall Never Die” concession speech at the 1980 Democratic Convention in New York City.
“I was with Vicki over the last weekend, campaigning with her at many different events, and it must have been a very poignant weekend for her—she was obviously feeling the presence of Teddy,” Markey tells me. “His convention speech in 1980—that’s the spirit that animates not only Vicki but the entire family. I actually was with Teddy that night, up in his room at the Waldorf Astoria after he gave that speech. It was very impressive to me, how optimistic he was at that point. That’s how he dealt with defeat. I am trying to channel that spirit right now.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.