Patrick Kennedy didn’t fit political mold

It was never a perfect fit — politics and Patrick Kennedy, the latest and perhaps the last in the long line of Kennedys at the heart of American political life.

The sometimes fragile son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy has spent all of his adult life in public office, but he has rarely seemed at ease in the spotlight. On Friday, five months after his father’s death, he announced he’ll retire from Congress, expressing a sense of relief. It will be the first time in six decades that Washington will be without a Kennedy in office.

“It feels like a load off my shoulders,” said the Rhode Island Democrat, who started pursuing public office before he graduated from college.

“I’ll have a private life and a personal life that heretofore I really haven’t experienced,” he said in a telephone interview. “I am looking forward to it.”

Kennedy, 42, a nephew of President John F. Kennedy and of Attorney General and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, says he will serve out his eighth term but won’t seek a ninth this fall.

In his autobiography, Edward Kennedy wrote that his son had a shy nature but seemed to love retail campaigning. Still, Patrick showed little zeal for political combat, finding his place instead as a passionate advocate for the mentally ill and speaking candidly about his own struggles with depression and substance abuse.

The younger Kennedy said his father’s death from brain cancer last summer helped lead him to pivot away from the life in government embraced by so many Kennedys before him. He said his father agreed that you don’t have to hold public office to make a difference. Family examples: siblings and cousins who have chosen lives as activists — promoting the Special Olympics, protecting the environment and fighting fetal alcohol syndrome.

Patrick Kennedy has seemed to be both propelled and tormented by his pedigree. Many assumed that he ran for office because it was expected of him. He noted himself that staying the course in politics meant extra time and conversation with his hero, his father.

Ted Kennedy wrote in his autobiography that the conflicts presented by the Kennedy name confronted Patrick even before he was sworn into his first elected job as a member of the Rhode Island Legislature. First, Patrick said he didn’t want his father there for his swearing-in. So Ted Kennedy went to Hawaii. Then, Patrick changed his mind, and Ted flew 14 hours to Providence.

But after all that, Dad wrote later, “Patrick greeted me with some interesting news. His people thought it was best if I didn’t go down for the swearing in.” The senator said he didn’t really mind — “I was just so proud of him and so happy.”

The differences between the Senate lion and his son were widely noted. Patrick Kennedy, for example, was never known for the kind of rousing speeches that were his father’s signature.

“You just have to take an extra pound of grief if you are a Kennedy,” said veteran Boston Democratic strategist Dan Payne. “It helps open doors, sure, but you are always measured against the other Kennedys; that’s a tough load to carry.”

All through the funeral services last summer, grief and loss played across Patrick’s face for the world to see.

“It looked as though it was taking every ounce of energy just to keep going,” Payne said.

Patrick’s departure from public office comes as other Kennedys of his generation work to make their mark outside elected office, steering away from the decisions of their parents’ generation.

Former Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy decided not to run for his uncle’s Senate seat last year, and seems content to remain outside of politics. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the eldest of Robert Kennedy’s 11 children, was lieutenant governor of Maryland, but her 2002 gubernatorial bid sputtered.

Caroline Kennedy fell short in seeking an appointment in New York to fill a Senate seat.

Some Democrats hope the late senator’s eldest son, Edward Kennedy Jr., will extend the family dynasty with a run for public office. The Connecticut attorney has said he’s considering following in his father’s footsteps in politics but has no immediate plans.

Where his father’s generation of Kennedys seemed to thrive on political jousting and negotiation, Patrick did not.

He’s had troubles with alcoholism, depression and drug addiction for much of his life, and last June sought treatment at a drug and alcohol addiction center in Maryland. He has been in and out of treatment for substance abuse since crashing his car outside the U.S Capitol in 2006.

But Patrick Kennedy then seemed to hit his stride, pushing for passage of a bill to require insurance companies to treat mental health on an equal basis with physical illnesses. Former President George W. Bush signed that bill into law in 2008.

For all the pressure and hassle of public life, Patrick Kennedy said Friday he stayed on that path in part because it nourished his relationship with his father.

“It’s kind of paradoxical,” he said.

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