Patrick Kennedy's Redemption

I was filled with sorrow when I heard about Patrick Kennedy’s recent decision to leave Congress. My reaction to his announcement is completely different from how I feel about the many Congressional members now lining up to leave town. Patrick Kennedy helps us to see what personal redemption might look like. As a nation, we need him. Here’s why.

Over 15 years ago, I received a series of major grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts to work on issues of political conduct. As part of that work, we convened Citizen Assemblies with citizens to create what became known as the Harwood Barometer for Political Conduct. In those citizen sessions, we showed a PBS Frontline documentary about Patrick Kennedy’s first Congressional race – an ugly, disheartening look at politics as usual. Unfortunately, young Kennedy was off to an inauspicious start.

But something happened to Patrick Kennedy along the way. He found himself face-to-face with personally harrowing challenges, including alcoholism, depression, and drug addiction. In 2005, he crashed his car in front of the U.S. Capitol. Over time, he has been in and out of substance abuse programs. Each step along the way, he has endured unwanted publicity, scrutiny, and, yes, public humiliation.

He has always worked in the shadows of the extended Kennedy clan – from his father, to his many cousins, to his inspiring uncles. As a legislator, he could never match Ted Kennedy’s record. In an piece, Laurence Leamer, author of three Kennedy books, said that Patrick was perhaps “the saddest” of all the Kennedy’s. That’s quite a claim given the family’s history of tragedy.

Patrick Kennedy could have easily retreated given all his missteps and humiliations, the larger-than-life expectations, the relentless poking and prodding. But he didn’t. Instead he stepped forward and became one of the nation’s leading voices on issues of substance abuse and the treatment of mental health; think about it – each time he spoke out on these issues, he invited people to recall his own failings. He allowed himself to be vulnerable in service to others who face enormous challenges. Now, he finds himself having to work through yet another personal challenge in the public eye – the death of his father.

We need Patrick Kennedy. He reminds us that redemption is possible. He has demonstrated heart-felt courage, not to retreat from or to wall-off our deepest secrets and fears. By showing up each day, he reminds us that vulnerability can be a virtue. His voice on substance abuse and mental health issues is a clarion call not to hide from ourselves or others, even when hiding may be the easiest thing to do.

We live during a time when people’s realities too often are distorted or dismissed, all so that politicians and the news media, among others, can elevate themselves to loftier positions; it’s easy to take the easy road. But, when push came to shove, Patrick Kennedy took the hardest road of all. He stepped forward, accounted for himself, and made the commitment to stay engaged in life.

There are many things Patrick Kennedy has said or done that I don’t necessarily agree with. But they pale in comparison to what I believe he has come to achieve. No doubt, his story is incomplete; but so too is our own.