The Anti-Dynasty

Watching Ted Kennedy share a stage with his niece Caroline, his son Patrick, and Barack Obama, I couldn’t help but think, One of these things is not like the others .

No, not like that. 

The theme of Ted Kennedy’s speech here at American University, and of Caroline Kennedy’s Times op-ed , is that Obama is John F. Kennedy’s political heir. The corollary to that, however, is that the family has no political heir who shares the Kennedy name. Sure, the most prominent living Kennedy children —Caroline, Patrick, Bobby Jr., Joseph P., Kathleen, Maria Shriver—have made major contributions to government and society. But none of them have become leaders on the scale of JFK, RFK, and even Teddy.

Seeing Ted praise Obama, it felt like a father deciding to give the family business to the adopted son rather than his natural son. And that’s the point: For all the talk about Obama inheriting the Kennedy legacy, this is not a dynasty. Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama therefore flies in the face of the dynastic succession of another Clinton presidency. Symbolically, it’s a repudiation of dynasties.

“The year I was born,” Obama said in his speech, “John F. Kennedy passed the torch to his youngest brother.” For Ted Kennedy, the living symbol of American dynasty, who essentially inherited his Massachusetts Senate seat from his brother, to now pass the torch to not only a non-Kennedy but a nonestablishment figure—that’s no small statement.