Visions of a new frontier
01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, October 3, 2010
The Providence Journal / Connie Grosch
WASHINGTON — Four weeks from Tuesday will be a milestone of sorts for the country.
It will be the first federal Election Day since 1944 — when Lt. John F. Kennedy was in his final weeks of Navy service — that has not featured a member of the famed political family on a ballot or seated in constitutional office.
For retiring Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, it will be the first time in years he won’t have to worry about being reelected. The Rhode Island Democrat will also be focused on another milestone just a few days beyond. On Nov. 7, Patrick and Caroline Kennedy will mark the 50th anniversary of her father’s final campaign event, a stump speech at the steps of Providence City Hall on the night before he was elected president.
“Here’s the circle for me,” said Patrick Kennedy. “It’s like 40 years of public life that I’m getting out of this year. The last stop that JFK came to was in my district, and the synergy for me is being able to honor his victory.
“What drove a lot of Americans into service to our country — the Peace Corps, the military, public service of all kinds — is what drove me into service, the legacy of asking, as he put it in his inaugural, what I could do.”
What Patrick Kennedy wants to do for the country in private life is expand his signature issue of mental health to encompass “the signature wound,” as he calls it, of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kennedy said the next “New Frontier” is medical — the full panoply of neurological maladies from battle-inflicted traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder to illnesses such as depression, addiction, dementia, and more.
To tackle them he envisions an initiative that he likens to President Kennedy’s space program.
The 43-year-old Kennedy can speak of 40 years in public life because he was a toddler when his father ran his third race for the Senate. Edward M. Kennedy all but inherited his brother Jack’s old Senate seat, first winning it in 1962 upon crossing the constitutional threshold of his 30th birthday.
Patrick Kennedy had just turned 21 — old enough to vote — when he picked up the family mantle to run for the state House of Representatives. That memorable campaign brought better-known Kennedys, including cousin Caroline, to stump across Mount Pleasant for the self-effacing Providence College undergraduate. It was 22 years ago this fall.
Kennedys had been in this line of work for more than a century, starting with Patrick’s great-grandfather and namesake, a successful East Boston liquor importer, state legislator and ward boss. His maternal great-grandfather, John F. Fitzgerald, was the first Irish-Catholic mayor of Boston. His uncle, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was a young war hero when he began the modern dynasty with the first of his three successful campaigns for the U.S. House in 1948.
In 1952, Jack Kennedy won the Senate seat that would remain in Kennedy hands for 56 years, if you count the brief custody of a family friend from 1961, when JFK became president, until Ted could run in 1962. Two years later, Robert F. Kennedy was elected to the Senate from New York. In 1986, Robert’s son, Joseph P. Kennedy II, won the first of his six U.S. House terms, in the redistricted version of his uncle Jack’s old seat, spanning parts of Boston and Cambridge.
Cousin Patrick, born after President Kennedy’s assassination and less than a year before Robert Kennedy’s, took up the family trade two years later.
“It was the family ethic,” Kennedy recalled last week, including the tug of his late uncle’s exhortation, “ask not what your country can do for you.”
After three terms in the General Assembly, he won an open congressional seat in 1994 to become one of a handful of Democrats elected against the historic wave that put the GOP in charge of the House for the first time in half a century. Kennedy’s race against Republican Dr. Kevin Vigilante was one of the most entertaining congressional races in modern Rhode Island memory. It was also Kennedy’s toughest race on the way to establishing a family record that even his father, who died in August 2009, could not match: 11 victories in election campaigns, three for the General Assembly seat, eight in the 1st Congressional District.
Winning elections, of course, has not proved to be Kennedy’s toughest challenge.
From his earliest days in office, he recalled last week, “I came in here trying to hide and to keep the challenge I was facing every day down to a low murmur, to try to fight the shame of suffering from neurological disorders.” That is the term he has come to use for the bipolar illness, alcoholism and drug abuse that have plagued him through his adult life.
Kennedy chose to go public with his mental illness during the late 1990s when Tipper Gore addressed a Rhode Island audience on the issue. His struggles with drugs and drinking hit the front page with a highly publicized auto accident in spring 1996.
Since then, in what he says is “kind of like a serendipitous turn,” Kennedy has become one of the nation’s best-known faces of recovery from mental illness and addiction, telling his story to help lessen the stigma for others and — in his principal achievement as a legislator — sponsoring a 2008 law to put mental illness on an equal insurance footing with other ailments.
For much of the succeeding two years, a time that encompassed his father’s death and his decision last winter not to seek reelection, Kennedy has moved toward what he hints will be the cause of his life after politics. It is nothing less ambitious than breaking down what he depicts as the artificial wall between mental and physical illness.
Kennedy puts “our American heroes,” the war veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, at the center of that campaign, which he expects to touch on during the John F. Kennedy memorial in Providence next month.
Kennedy makes the case that medical science is rapidly unlocking the secrets that will bridge the worlds of traditional medicine and mental health — mainly through the kind of neuroscientific research that pinpoints the brain chemistry behind addiction, depression and other ailments viewed not so long ago as character flaws.
Politically, Kennedy makes the case that the stigma attached to mental illness is a civil-rights issue akin to racial prejudice.
And as a practical matter, Kennedy portrays the plight of the brain-injured soldier as a tragedy of these times, but also an opportunity for rallying the public to a great nonpartisan cause. “One brain, one mind” is among the slogans that he uses to preface his argument that a crash research program — initially aimed at treating veterans afflicted with traumatic brain injuries and posttraumatic stress disorder — can eventually help millions.
The congressman envisions a time when research yields genetic markers as keys to the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, addiction, multiple sclerosis, dementia, depression — a host of illnesses no longer segregated as “medical” or “mental.”
Kennedy plans to write a book that uses his personal story to draw attention to the promise of treatment and research. And he foresees many ways to echo his late uncle’s clarion call to service — at congressional hearings, at next month’s memorial on Kennedy Plaza and beyond.
The brain “is the last frontier,” said Kennedy. “It’s the new frontier, but we’re not going to outer space. We’re coming to inner space” to make neurological breakthroughs comparable to the engineering breakthroughs of President Kennedy’s space program, he declared.
“We’re going to need that same ethic that JFK put forward in his ‘moon-shot’ speech; that we’re going to do this before the decade is out. We’re going to get this done because we’re Americans. We’re in it to win it.”