Babysitter sex charge casts fresh cloud over Kennedys

Just when it seemed a popular member of America's most famous political dynasty might be heading for a governorship, the family jinx has struck again, reports David Usborne

Outside the Blue Lilac Antique Store, three women reminisce about the last extraordinary thing to happen in their town, Cohasset, an impossibly genteel New England village south of Boston.

It was 10 years ago, and the actor Jack Nicholson was literally being blown down the main shopping street flat on his back by a battery of giant stage fans. The film was The Witches of Eastwick and Mr Nicholson had been hexed.

Of Cohasset's current drama, they are much less willing to talk. It has placed their town at the epicentre of an earthquake that is shaking all of Massachusetts. And eerily, it too features a famous man who might also be said to be under a hex. He is Michael Kennedy, son of the slain Robert Kennedy.

It has already been a week since the Boston Globe took the lid off allegations that Mr Kennedy had until last autumn been conducting, under the roof of his shingled Cohasset house, an illicit affair with the family baby- sitter. The girl, the daughter of another Cohasset power couple, may even have first been bedded by Mr Kennedy when she was only 14. Unnamed by local papers, she is now 19.

It is as if the Kennedy curse has returned once more. The political dynasty that weathered the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith in Florida in 1991 and the more famous, and tragic, Chappaquiddick affair in 1969 when the car of a then young Edward Kennedy plunged into the ocean killing Mary Jo Kopechne is in crisis again. The local District Attorney is currently investigating whether formal charges should be pressed. If Mr Kennedy indeed slept with the girl when she was 14 he could be convicted of statutory rape.

Politically, the timing is awful. The man with the most to lose aside from Michael himself is his brother, Joe Kennedy. Blessed by the Camelot mantle and formidably popular, Joe has long been favoured one day to step up from his seat in the House of Representatives in Washington to the office of the Governor of Massachusetts. That opportunity unexpectly presented itself at the beginning of last week, when President Clinton nominated the current Governor, Republican William Weld, to be US Ambassador to Mexico.

But at the very moment he needs it, Joe Kennedy finds his popularity is eroding like a sand bar in a hurricane. Part of the blame lies with Michael, who is now separated from his wife, Vicki, with whom he has three children. Michael is close to Joe. He also managed the tough, but ultimately successful, 1994 re-election campaign of his uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy.

"There is no question this hurts him [Joe]," observed Lou DiNatale, a professor of politics at the University of Massachusetts. "It means the continuing image of the Kennedys and their relationship with women will hang in the background while the campaign unfolds. While to date that has never been a fatal electoral flaw, it could be moving to critical mass".

While all this is going on, Joe has been smacked by an entirely different kind of woman problem of his own. It centres on a highly public campaign being waged against him by his ex-wife, Sheila Rauch Kennedy.

Joe, a Catholic of course, obtained a civil divorce from Sheila in 1991. Two years later, however, he told her he was asking for an annulment of their marriage so he could marry his new wife in church and begin taking communion again. The annulment was granted by the Archdiocese of Boston last autumn, but Sheila has appealed against it, taking it all the way to the Vatican. She has also written about it.

Sheila's book, Shattered Faith, has just hit the book shops - and the TV talk shows. Of Joe, it is hardly complimentary. She says over the years she was increasingly bullied by Joe who treated her as a "nobody". She wrote: "By the end of the marriage I had simply become afraid of him". Of the day he asked for the annulment, she says: "As I rushed to the bathroom, I tried to remember when I had last actually vomited ... I remember thinking Joe must simply be out of his mind."

If Mr Weld is confirmed as ambassador, the governorship will pass first to the current Lieutenant Governor, Republican Paul Cellucci, until an election for the post in November 1998. A Globe poll last week showed Joe Kennedy trailing Mr Cellucci and even his likely Democratic rival in the primary. And 28 per cent of those polled said the combination of the annulment controversy and the allegations against Michael made them less likely to support Joe.

Outside the antique shop, Marjorie Devoe acknowledges that the damage done to Joe might be real. "I grew up in the JFK era and we tolerated Ted at least because he came with such clout. But how much clout does Joe really have? I think this will come to affect him". She also believes that the anger against Michael is only just below the surface. "When the dust settles, the outrage will come out."

Just tonight, however, Cohasset has the perfect chance to escape from it all. The Witches of Eastwick is on television.

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