Clash of the Kennedys

America's most famous political dynasty is bickering over who will succeed Ted Kennedy if he dies of brain cancer. David Usborne reports
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Ted Kennedy, still grizzled but looking fitter than you might expect one year after his brain cancer diagnosis, is back on Capitol Hill and preparing for his last big policy battle: giving wind to Barack Obama's healthcare reform package. He is still the Lion of the Senate, it seems. It would be beyond rude, therefore, to discuss who will take the seat he has held since 1964 when he is gone. Most press accounts describe the 77-year-old as almost reinvigorated after a winter spent mostly in South Florida. Why would we be counting him out now?

Impolite nor not, the speculation has begun and so has the jockeying, it seems, including between members of the Senator's own family. Everyone is trying to be discreet, of course, lest the old man feel insulted, but this is a succession story that will be too gripping to keep under wraps for long. "It's not acceptable to be making public noises right now," says one close confidant of the senator, who as chairman of the Health, Education, Labour and Pensions Committee will hold the tiller in healthcare reform discussions on the Hill. "But it's going on nonetheless."

That there is a growing urgency to the chit-chat reflects a feeling among those close to Mr Kennedy that he cannot defy the odds for ever. The most optimistic scenario has him deciding against running for re-election in 2012, but most of his friends expect him to resign long before that, probably when the healthcare reform bills are complete assuming he can hold on that long. The day Edward, the brother of John F Kennedy, clears his desk will be a signal one. His influence on Capitol Hill after 45 years of legislating is unequalled. For Massachusetts, which must then hold a special election, the notion of a Kennedy not being its representative will be hard to fathom, unless they find another Kennedy to elect.

Which takes us to the heart of the saga. It's no secret that there are two Kennedys in the frame to replace the Lion: one is Vicki Kennedy, his wife since 1992, and the other his nephew and a former six-term US Congressman, the rambunctious Joe Kennedy. How bitter might the rivalry between these two become? According to a new book by political reporter Edward Klein and run in excerpts in the latest Vanity Fair magazine, the two of them have, to an extent, already drawn daggers. The question now dominating dinner parties in the homes of Democrats in Boston and Washington is: which one survives the battle? To which some seasoned observers respond: neither. They will cancel each other out. Ted will not be replaced by a Kennedy.

Vicki would get her husband's endorsement over Joe. Few stories of love, loyalty and romance on Capitol Hill have been as touching as theirs. She has not publicly stated yet whether she is interested. Few doubt that she would have the intellectual heft to take on the challenge. She would have access to money to campaign in Massachusetts to defeat any primary opponents. It is assumed that the seat is a Democrat's to win because of the shrunken state of the Republican Party in the northeast.

But she could expect furious resistance from Joe, the son of the late Bobby Kennedy, says Mr Klein in his book, Ted Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died. "Vicki is seen as an interloper and is deeply resented by Ted's children and many of the nephews," Mr Klein writes. He offers a vivid description of the attempts made by Joe to take over as family patriarch the day his uncle was admitted to hospital last May. To the horror of the nursing staff he at one point ordered in a feast of lobster and oysters for him to eat when what he needed was calm and surgery.

Letting Vicki run the show seemingly did not factor in his thinking. "Joe, who sees himself as the only serious heir apparent, loathes her control over his uncle and hence the family," Mr Klein asserts. "Joe inherited his father's ruthless gene. He is nothing if not aggressive. And anybody who gets between him and Ted's Senate chair is in for a fight."

But while Vicki, who is 55, may be disposed to run for the seat when it falls empty, there will surely be reasons other than Joe getting in the way to make her pause. Above all, when the day comes that Ted steps down, it will be because his health is failing. Will Vicki want to be campaigning and criss-crossing Massachusetts while her husband is dying? A Joe Kennedy campaign has its problems, too. The head of an energy charity, he is hampered by a reputation for brash arrogance.

The thought is real, therefore, that the Kennedy string could be broken. It is why when Hillary Clinton resigned her New York seat to become Secretary of State, Ted moved so swiftly to steer his niece Caroline into her slot so that a Kennedy would remain in the Senate whatever happened in Massachusetts. As we know, that little stratagem backfired badly after the state's governor, who had the power to appoint Mrs Clinton's successor, declined to play ball and Ms Kennedy abruptly withdrew. She did so, according to the pages of Mr Klein's new book, after her two children sat her down and said that politics was already turning her into a person they didn't like. "You know, these are huge shoes that are going to have been filled," said one Kennedy insider yesterday, "and just because your name is Kennedy doesn't mean you have a lock on the seat."

There are other able and experienced Democrats in Massachusetts just aching for the chance to run for the Senate where no Kennedy stands. One is the state's attorney general, Martha Coakley, who rose to prominence as the member of the district attorney's office charged with prosecuting Louise Woodward, the British nanny who faced baby-shaking manslaughter charges a decade ago. Also in the wings are two US congressmen, Steve Lynch and Michael Capuano.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. There will be plenty of opportunity to turn the story of who succeeds Ted Kennedy into a Shakespearean epic. But we are not quite there yet. He is back at his desk and has healthcare reform to push through first.

Heirs apparent: The name game

*Joseph Patrick Kennedy II, 56

The son of the late Robert F Kennedy, who was assassinated on the presidential campaign trail in 1968, Joe rose to claim his own place in the Kennedy pantheon upon his election to the House of Representatives in 1986, and went on to serve six successive terms. After retiring in 1999, he returned to a charity he co-founded, Citizen's Energy, which supplies subsidised heating oil to low-income families in America's North-east.

*Victoria Reggie Kennedy, 55

After the end of his 24-year marriage to first wife, Joan, Teddy spent a decade alone as a not-so-sprightly bachelor in not such strong health. But then he met Victoria Reggie, 20 years his junior and also divorced. The daughter of a Louisiana judge, Vicki married Teddy in 1992 and steered him back to good health and re-election in 1994, 2000 and 2006. She is an advocate for strong gun controls.