The Atlantic

The Last Kennedy

A number of Democratic power brokers wanted Representative Joe Kennedy to run for president. He consulted with family members and said no.
Source: Pete Marovich / Getty

FALL RIVER, Mass.—Four new members of the House were hanging out at a bar back at the end of 2012, after a long day of new-member orientation at Harvard’s Kennedy School: Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, and Eric Swalwell of California.

A woman approached the table, and caught O’Rourke’s eye.

“She’s like, ‘Are you who I think you are?’ And I thought, I just won this seat in Texas and she knows about me, and this is cool. I’m big-time,” O’Rourke told me last year, a few months before his Senate run took off. “And I say, ‘Well, yeah, I think I am.’ She’s like, ‘You’ve got to come over to my table. All my friends want to meet you. This is crazy.’ So I go over and we’re taking pictures.”

This went on for a bit, the table getting excited over the young congressman with the big teeth that his new friend would later joke made him the best-looking Kennedy on Capitol Hill.

“Then it dawns on me,” O’Rourke said. “I don’t have his red hair, but I can tell from picking it up that it’s not Beto O’Rourke that they’re interested in. In the middle of the third or fourth picture I said, ‘Oh, hold on a second. Wait. It’s not me you’re looking for. It’s that guy.’ And I went over and I got Joe Kennedy.”

Six years later, O’Rourke, Gabbard, and Swalwell are all running for president—O’Rourke is drawing comparisons to Robert Kennedy—and Joe Kennedy and I are in a rental car, rounding an exit from the highway to this small city on the south edge of his district, not far from Rhode Island.

The smokestacks of a factory pop into view outside his window, and Kennedy is talking about what he calls “moral capitalism,” his rethinking of the fundamental rules of the American economy. He’s also pushing back on the thought that what he’s envisioning seems too radical to become reality by comparing it to John F. Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon.

[Read: The legacy of John F. Kennedy]

He’s the last Kennedy left in politics. He’s young, has a national profile, and has come at economics and other issues more thoughtfully and more forcefully than most of the people who are running for president.

That’s why a number of party power players, led by Louis Susman, an investment banker and the former ambassador to Britain under Barack Obama, came to him last year, telling him the answer to the “Why not me?” election the Democrats are in the middle of was “Why not you?”

Kennedy listened. He considered

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