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Patrick Kennedy discusses why he's leaving Congress and life without his dad, Ted Kennedy

Portraits of Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s uncles look out from the walls of the Rhode Island congressman’s Capitol Hill office.

Washington Post

Portraits of Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s uncles look out from the walls of the Rhode Island congressman’s Capitol Hill office.

WASHINGTON — Patrick Kennedy wants to talk.

He leads the way through the corridors of the Cannon House Office Building, polished and empty at 10 at night, and unlocks Suite 407, the office of the senior member of the Rhode Island congressional delegation. He is 42 and has been in Congress for 16 years, but this space won't be his for much longer.

The Democrat flicks on the lights, and there are the imposing uncles, Jack and Bobby, staring down from their oil portraits. And there are dozens of photos of his father, Edward, a senator for 47 years, who was buried in Arlington National Cemetery six months ago, but whose presence lives on in his son's office: the model sailboat, the stack of his published memoirs, the bound volume cataloging his estate.

Teddy Kennedy's youngest child entered the family business at 21, the youngest member of the sprawling political clan ever to win elected office. Now he's leaving, and he wants to talk about how he anguished over this decision.

"As exciting and as meaningful as work is and as my career is, ultimately something clicked inside of me that there was something that was missing," Kennedy says. "I want a fuller life."

Alone with a reporter, the congressman seems liberated. He talks for nearly three hours about the great blessings and heavy burdens of being a Kennedy and losing the desire for politics after his father's death.

"For me, I had an audience of one," Kennedy says. "That was my dad. He's the only person whose opinion mattered to me."

Growing up, he recalls, "I really was in essence looking for a lot of attention, which he couldn't give me, and became really kind of inconsolable, and on top of that I had this depression issue. This whole opportunity to, like, overcome this sense of inadequacy and also to be able to be a co-equal, where he didn't have to worry ... about how I was doing because clearly I managed to get myself enough on track where I had gotten elected to Congress. Clearly I had something going on."

When he's done talking, it's past midnight. Kennedy slumps into a couch, in his frayed Levis, and closes his eyes.

Patrick, sometimes awkward, often undisciplined, fighting addictions, has won more elections than any other Kennedy, ever. He was elected to the Rhode Island legislature while a college sophomore and has been in public office ever since. Now, with the opportunity to fully step out from beneath his father's shadow, he is giving it all up, announcing Feb. 12 that he would not run for a ninth term. He'll advocate for mental health and addiction issues from his home town in Portsmouth, R.I., but won't make any career moves until he leaves Congress.

His re-election was shaping up to be a difficult race. A recent poll found 56 percent of likely voters viewed him unfavorably. But Kennedy says he was not influenced by political standing or by the turbulent political climate.

Some of his frustration was evident Wednesday, when he unleashed on the House floor a blustering and angry condemnation of the news media.

"If anybody wants to know where cynicism is, cynicism is that there's one, two press people in this gallery," Kennedy yelled during a debate over the Afghanistan war, his voice cracking and his arm pointing at the correspondents' gallery. "We're talking about (former congressman) Eric Massa 24-7 on the TV. We're talking about war and peace — $3 billion, 1,000 lives and no press! No press! ... It's despicable, the national press corps right now."

Kennedy has long scorned the 24-hour cable news cycle, one piece — if only a small one — in his decision to leave.

Still, he is quick to note that he is not retiring for good. "I consider it taking a sabbatical," he says. He will transfer his roughly $500,000 in campaign funds to an interest-bearing account, which he might tap if he chooses to run for the Senate someday.

In phone conversations, text messages and e-mails over several days, Kennedy doesn't volunteer many specifics about his struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction, depression and bipolar disorder. He assumes his story is known. And it is:

Treated for cocaine use as a teen; went bar-crawling in Palm Beach with his father and his cousin William Kennedy Smith, who was acquitted at trial of raping a young woman that night; accused of shoving a security officer at Los Angeles International Airport; crashed his convertible into a concrete barrier at the Capitol while under the influence of prescription drugs.

"I used to feel like, oh, my God, it's all a personal weakness of mine," Kennedy says. "Maybe I didn't measure up. ... When I was growing up and my mother's alcoholism — and this has gone back in my family's history, and I'm sure that part of it is genetic — the shame, especially being in public life, that I felt as a result of that and the notion that I would end up myself bearing that same feeling of shame, that I was somehow less than or weak because of having the same illness ...

"But I managed to succeed in a socially acceptable way; i.e., in the family business of politics, which if there were ever a business where you would think that would be the biggest death knell, it would be in politics."

White House adviser David Axelrod, a friend, says: "There was a lot of tension, and Patrick was very focused on not disappointing (his father). That's a heavy legacy to live with."

After the car crash in 2006, Kennedy went public with his illnesses. He checked into treatment and attended recovery meetings. He returned to rehab again, including last summer, but he doesn't say how long he has been sober. "I'm sober for today, and that's the way I prefer to keep it," Kennedy says.

His mother, Joan Kennedy, 73, is said to have been sober since treatment in 2005.

He is committed to destigmatizing mental illness and addictions, turning a political liability into a strength.

The 2008 Mental Health Parity Act, which mandated that health insurance plans cover mental illness as they cover physical illnesses, is Patrick Kennedy's greatest legislative achievement. His father helped secure passage in the Senate, but Patrick's openness about his own battles helped lift the veil of shame.

By leaving politics, Kennedy is free to discover who he is and what his place is in this world.

"We grew up in a family where there was very little tolerance for self-exploration," says a cousin, Christopher Kennedy Lawford. "I think now he has this freedom ... to do some real exploration of who he is and what he wants to do in his lifetime.''

Kennedy says he contemplated his decision to give up his House seat for a year. He didn't immediately confide in his dad, the man he calls his closest confidante and political guide. Then, last summer, his father asked Patrick to clear his schedule. Ted Kennedy was dying, and he wanted his youngest to join siblings Ted Jr. and Kara at Hyannisport.

"That was the nicest thing he's ever done for me," Patrick Kennedy says. "I didn't realize how much I was hungering for that."

Those weeks opened his eyes to the fact that his father enjoyed being surrounded by loved ones — and the reality that Patrick sometimes feels alone.

"In the final analysis, that really was what sustained him the most," says Patrick, who now wants to settle down, marry and have children. He has grown closer to his siblings but not his father's second wife, Vicki. "She's really not much a part of my life," he says.

Over those final weeks, Kennedy broached his retirement from the House. He says his dad encouraged him to do what would make him happy, saying there are other avenues to make a difference and assuring him he would love him regardless.

Patrick never knew Washington without his dad, and those close to him say he has felt alone in Congress after his death.

Now, it is a sign of Patrick Kennedy's liberation that his past scandals are sources of his own amusement, even in front of his constituents. One Friday night in February, he flew home to Rhode Island to roast himself at a banquet. He delivered a top 10 list of the reasons he is leaving office.

"Toyota has hired me as their consultant," he deadpans. "I'm not sure why, because I couldn't seem to get my car to stop, either."

Patrick Kennedy discusses why he's leaving Congress and life without his dad, Ted Kennedy 03/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 10:14pm]
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