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Joan Vennochi

Backroom politics over Kennedy’s seat

By Joan Vennochi
September 24, 2009

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THIS IS TURNING into a test of Camelot’s clout and Governor Deval Patrick’s loyalties.

The pressure is building for Patrick to appoint Paul G. Kirk Jr. as Ted Kennedy’s interim successor. Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, is lobbying for Kirk, and Kennedy’s sons, Patrick and Edward M. Kennedy Jr., also told Patrick that Kirk is their choice.

If it’s Kirk, Patrick is picking a Kennedy foot soldier and political insider who is well-known inside Washington’s power circles - but is virtually unknown to Massachusetts voters.

If it’s Kirk, Patrick is rejecting Michael S. Dukakis, who served three terms as governor of Massachusetts and won his party’s presidential nomination, fighting all the while for core Democratic values. The Dukakis loss to George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential race is an unpleasant reminder of Democratic failure. But it is also an example of Dukakis’s unwavering commitment to key Democratic principles, including health care reform.

Dukakis’s wife, Kitty, was also an early and avid Patrick supporter, who stood behind his bid for governor when other Democrats wrote it off.

Kennedy’s wish for an interim replacement is being framed as a noble desire to retain two votes for Massachusetts, and especially to deliver a vote on health care legislation in the US Senate.

It’s also about keeping Kennedy’s office staff in Washington as long as possible. Given the Kennedy staff reputation for excellence, there’s nothing wrong with that goal and there’s nothing terrible about choosing Kirk to carry it out. He’s a good man for the interim job. But let’s not overwrap it in Camelot’s gauze. Pushing Kirk as the temporary bearer of the Kennedy torch is typical backroom politics. And, it’s being done with typically sharp Kennedy elbows.

Kirk, a lawyer and onetime chairman of the Democratic National Committee, served as a special assistant to Kennedy from 1969 to 1977. He is chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. He will do exactly what Kennedy would want him to do on health care reform and other issues that come up in the limited time of his interim appointment.

But so would Dukakis. Or maybe he wouldn’t. Is that so bad?

Why must Kirk be promoted at Dukakis’s expense, by painting the former governor as a stubborn, aging, trash-collecting eccentric?

It’s pathetic to read the whispers of unnamed party officials who suggest that “an independent streak’’ makes Dukakis unsuitable for Washington. It’s sad to hear the 20-year-old jokes about a politician who left office to teach college students, not make millions in lobbyist fees; who walked away from elective office but stayed in the fight for public policy; who knows what he believes in and isn’t afraid to state it; and who has a humble side, at odds with the over-inflated political ego that is a Washington staple.

In New York, Caroline Kennedy tried and failed to win appointment as Hillary Clinton’s replacement, after the former first lady and presidential candidate left the Senate to become secretary of state.

But in Massachusetts, the Kennedy legacy has more staying power and the Kennedy family thinks it should have more to say about who carries it forward. Ted Kennedy’s temporary replacement must reflect Kennedy’s values and embody his spirit, as they define it. The interim senator will hold the job only until a new senator is elected on Jan. 19. But the person should be more than a seat-warmer, not that either Kirk or Dukakis fits that description.

As James Michael Curley once said, “Every time you do a favor for a constituent, you make nine enemies and one ingrate.’’

Camelot’s last hurrah is a dilemma for Patrick.

If it’s a last hurrah. One of Joe Kennedy’s twin sons supposedly covets the Eighth Congressional District seat that his father once held. Its current occupant, Representative Michael Capuano, is running to replace Ted Kennedy in January’s special election. A Capuano win would leave an opening for another Kennedy-for-Congress campaign.

The torch may yet be passed to another Kennedy generation. No one wants to get burned.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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