Stupid Grandson Theory

Kennedy Scandals, Then & Now.


A few weeks ago, when

39-year-old Michael Skakel

finally appeared in court to

plead not guilty to the charge

of murdering a teenaged neighbor

named Martha Moxley in 1975, the

event was reported as the latest

scandalous episode in the

ongoing dramedy of the

self-styled "clan" that has long

stood in for royalty in these

lamentably egalitarian United


Skakel is, of course, a Kennedy.

To be precise, he is a nephew of

Big Ethel Kennedy, the widow of

Robert F. Kennedy, the

much-mourned assassinated

presidential contender, Marilyn

Monroe sex toy, and one-time

right-hand man to Senator Joseph

McCarthy (who was, in turn,

godfather to Bobby's first kid).

Skakel's upcoming trial —

the next round is scheduled for

20 June and will decide if the

arteriosclerotic middle-aged

defendant is tried as a juvenile

or an adult — promises to

offer the nation a Jon Benet

Ramsey-like reprieve from both

summer reruns and brand-new

episodes of Who Wants to Be a

Millionaire? But its true value

is not that it will keep

disgraced cop Mark Fuhrman off

welfare for a few more weeks as

a TV analyst or that it provides

new material for another

installment of a family-based

soap opera that has already run

more seasons than Dr. Who. Apart

from the not-insignificant

possibility that a grisly,

senseless homicide may finally

be solved 25 years after it

occurred, the Skakel case

reminds us that, in a relatively

open and mobile society, class,

status, and wealth are not fixed

forever but must be renewed with

each generation or be

surrendered to arriviste

upstarts. Who would ever have

thought that at this late date

in human history (we may have

already run out of time by Hal

Lindsay's watch) the Kennedys

would have started contributing

to society?

Some 50 years ago, the great

economist Joseph Schumpeter

coined the now-hip term "creative

destruction" to describe what he

saw as the constant economic and

cultural adaptations

("mutations," he called them)

characteristic of market-based

societies. He noted further

that, under capitalism and

compared with feudal societies,

dynasties are particularly

difficult to maintain over any

length of time, that wealth and

position are built up and

dissipated with disquieting

regularity. There's a great deal

of truth, wrote Schumpeter, in

the saying that families

typically go "three generations

from overalls to overalls."

Economists in the age of Edgar

Bronfman and George W. have

streamlined this old adage into

the more euphonious "stupid

grandson theory."

While no one expects to see

members of the Kennedy clan

working the fry vat at

McDonald's any time soon —

though the high-visibility

failure of Eunice Kennedy's

daughter Maria Shriver to snag a

post-throwing- in-the-towel

interview with presidential

sweepstakes loser John "Nasty"

McCain may be a prelude to just

such a career move — the

Skakel case underscores

Schumpeter's thesis, at least

when it comes to scandal and

tragedy. Who will argue that the

latter-day Kennedys fail to

measure up to the preceding

generation regarding their two

most enduring familial traits,

utter human debasement and

gloriously overwrought


When the generation of John,

Robert, and Ted (and yes, even

brother-in-law Peter "I want to

send a Candygram" Lawford)

indulged in the sort of

hypocritical, loathsome behavior

they claimed as a birthright

(Joe Sr. famously boffed film

great Gloria Swanson while on a

family cruise to Europe), they

did it with such class and style

that even a perfect gentleman

such as Francis Albert Sinatra

had to snap his fingers, nod his

head, and mumble, "You're all

right, pally."

When John was banging tarts in

the White House, for instance,

he didn't merely boff (and then

reportedly stalk) his kid's baby

sitter, as his late nephew

Michael would do decades later

(nor would JFK stoop to the Good

Friday behavior of William

Kennedy Smith, who was acquitted

of rape in 1991). No, President

John got it on with a Mafia

moll, Judith Exner, and the

premier sexpot of his era,

Marilyn Monroe. When the time

came for Teddy to finally split

with his long-suffering and

hard-drinking missus, Joan —

amid rumors of long-term

affairs and extramarital sex in

Washington, DC, restaurants — he

did the stand-up thing and got a

divorce, not an annulment, as

Robert's son, Joe II, tried to

do (despite the presence of

several children testifying to

the multiple consummation of a

12-year-old marriage).

Even when it came to causing the

deaths of others (usually

women), the elder Kennedys

comported themselves with a

certain bigger-than-life panache

totally lacking in their younger

offspring. Marilyn Monroe became

Robert Kennedy's magnificent

obsession once brother John was

finally done with her and RFK

himself was finally done with

Tailgunner Joe. Bobby has been

entertainingly, if improbably,

charged with her death by

overdose, allegedly rigging the

coroner's report and engaging in

other sorts of cover-up

activity. In 1969, Ted Kennedy

was far more probably involved

in a fatal drunk-driving

accident in Chappaquiddick, gave

conflicting accounts of his

role, and somehow managed a

boozy marathon swim from a wreck

that took the life of a young

female aide, not his wife. His

coldly calculated apology

(televised only to his

Massachusetts constituents) at

the very least suggested public

relations skills that

Machiavelli himself (if not

Sinatra, who was reportedly

disgusted by such ploys) would

have had to admire.

There is, moreover, no

comparison between older and

younger generations when the

focus shifts from the tragic

deaths the Kennedy clan has

caused to the ones it has

suffered. It is perhaps a slight

overstatement to suggest that

American innocence died the day

that Lyndon Johnson's secret

operatives made it look as if

John F. Kennedy was shot to

death in Dallas (thanks to

Robert Redford's 1994 movie Quiz

Show, we know that America's

psychic cherry had, in fact,

been popped some years earlier

by time-traveling actor John

Turturro and game-show warlord

Jack Barry). But it is

nonetheless true that the

president's apparent

assassination at least inspired

two awful Bob Dylan songs ("He

Was a Friend of Mine" and "They

Killed Him").

Viewed from the all-important

perspective of pop music, RFK's

assassination (which occurred in

uncomfortable proximity to

former football player,

needlepoint expert, Bounty

pitchman, and O. J. Simpson

confessor Rosie Grier) is

similarly groundbreaking: Just

listen to the last verse of

Dion's "Abraham, Martin, and

John" to hear the national pain

caused by Bobby's death (though

yes, that's Hubert Humphrey III

playing the tambourine in the


It seems unlikely that the two

most recent "tragic" deaths of

Kennedys will result in such

affecting pop tunes, though one

expects a Weird Al Yankovic

parody of "Abraham, Martin, and

John" any day now. Michael

Kennedy, whose baby sitter

problems not only destroyed his

marriage but his brother Joe's

gubernatorial aspirations, died

in a 1997 skiing accident. (In a

gruesomely comic twist on a

family activity made famous by

the older Kennedy generation,

Michael struck a tree while

playing touch football on the

slopes). Then, of course, there

was John Kennedy Jr.'s plane

crash last summer, which killed

not only John-John but his wife

and sister-in-law. Such deaths,

however sad, served not to

extend the Kennedy clan's claim

on the American psyche but to

force the nation into facing the

brute fact that a family once so

loved and revered was good for

little more than jokes

referencing John Denver.

All, of course, is not lost. If

Schumpeter is right about the

quickness with which family

wealth and status is pissed away,

he is even more right about the

way in which new broods rise to

the top: not simply in money, but

also in terms of scandal. Though

the Kennedys may no longer run

the country, this is still

America, a country where every

parent can dream, however

foolishly, that their children

will be even more successful

embarassments than they were.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.