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Winter 1999-2000
Vol. 62, No. 2

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Mr. Kennedy Went to Washington . . . and Loved It

Well, he loved it except for the year he spent as chief White House spokesman on the Lewinsky matter. But aside from that . . .

By Scott Hauser

Kennedy on the job: It's more fun this year.

If Jim Kennedy '75 tires of his job as a White House spokesman, he could probably hire himself out as an expert on the peculiarly 1990s ailment known as "media overload." Or maybe it should be called "Monica Lewinsky-itis."

As the man who took over as the chief spokesperson for President Clinton's legal defense team just days after the former intern's name first appeared in print, Kennedy knows all the symptoms.

It begins with "telephone cringe," characterized by an involuntary wince every time the phone rings.

And, afterward, there's "phantom beeper quivers," a ghostly sensation of a vibrating beeper that, on inspection, turns out to be inactive.

Sufferers generally have been exposed to extreme doses of media inquisition, the kind that comes with being at the center of a media frenzy surrounding an intern, a president, and an impeachment.

"I stopped cringing after awhile," Kennedy says, his sense of humor intact six months after the Senate acquitted Clinton. "And phantom beeper quivers are a sign of things returning to normal."

Kennedy's "normal" role as a White House special advisor is to help answer reporters' questions about investigations and other legal issues, and he's spent most of 1999 dealing with topics such as reported espionage by China, the reopening of the Waco/Branch Davidian investigation, and Hillary Clinton's exploratory interest in representing New York in the U.S. Senate.

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But for more than a year--from the day he first walked into the office on January 26, 1998, as chief spokesman for the White House counsel--Kennedy was in the eye of a media hurricane that dwarfed even the politically charged topics he regularly handles.

"The year was substantially busier than I expected," he says, with notable understatement.

"I'd never been exposed to that kind of scrutiny and workload before. It was unrelenting."

Kennedy also found himself an eyewitness to a political milieu that he had glimpsed briefly 25 years ago, when, as a Rochester undergraduate, he was an intern for a California congressman during the Watergate investigation.

And, as this one-time street musician might put it, the times (and the Times and other media), are a'changin' when it comes to presidential scandals.

The calls--from The New York Times and the online Drudge Report and everything in between--began January 21, 1998, when The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and ABC News led their news reports with the allegations about Lewinsky, re-igniting Independent Prosecutor Ken Starr's Clinton investigation.

Kennedy was officially set to start February 1 and was about to go house-hunting when the first reports broke.

He jumped in on January 26, and took his first question. He figures there were about 49,999 more about the scandal from his first day on the job until February 13, 1999, when The Washington Post declared an unofficial end to the impeachment investigation.

That works out to about 130 questions a day, every day, including Saturdays, Sundays, and all the federal holidays.

As the focus of the questions shifted to bodily fluids, fabric stains, and the definition of sexual acts, even the most practiced spin doctor would have had a hard time not blushing.

"This was such an overreaching probe into the president's personal life, some of the questions tended to be extremely graphic and explicit," Kennedy says. "I wouldn't want them repeated in a family alumni magazine."

Then there were the meetings: Kennedy estimates he and members of the White House staff had more than 500 of them that year to talk about the Lewinsky matter. A group of 12 or so met every morning and every evening.

"Those sessions framed the day," he says.

In between were the constant calls from the media, and as Kennedy got his feet wet, calls to allies around the country, asking for support and getting a sense of opinion in different parts of the nation.

Charles Ruff, the former White House counsel who led Clinton's defense team, says Kennedy didn't let on that he had been dropped without a life raft into the deep end of Washington's media sharkfest.

"From day one, he was just in there, swimming with the rest of us," Ruff recalls. "He was just marvelously calm and unflappable."

"I can't imagine surviving the rigors of 1998-99 without him," Ruff says.

Kennedy traces the beginnings of his interest in politics to watching and listening to John F. Kennedy (nope, no relation) as a youngster growing up in Wallingford, Connecticut.

But it wasn't until he arrived on campus that his attraction to politics and the media was galvanized.

Originally intending to be an astrophysics major, Kennedy soon found an area of study that better matched his interests and the campus zeitgeist of the early 1970s.

"It was a real period of transition for my generation," Kennedy recalls. "There was the Vietnam War, Watergate--a period of major changes. I think it inspired a lot of us to pursue careers in politics, public service, and the media."

After switching his major to political science and history, Kennedy was chosen during the spring of his junior year as one of 10 Rochester undergraduates to participate in the Washington Semester Program.

Created by Richard Fenno, Jr., Rochester's William Kenan Professor of Political Science, the program helps selected undergraduates find internships with members of the House of Representatives. Students spend the semester in Washington, D.C., earning University credit while working on the staff of a representative.

It was when he was doing his internship in the office of the late Representative Glenn Anderson, a California Democrat, that Kennedy witnessed his first dramatic moment in presidential history.

He saw the helicopter that carried a disgraced Richard Nixon, forced to resign by the Watergate scandal, as the aircraft left the White House. He was in Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue, when Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, was sworn in.

"That whole experience gave me a much greater interest in politics and the media," he says. "I knew that's what I wanted to do."

Fenno, who established the program in 1968, says Kennedy's reaction to his undergraduate Washington immersion is typical.

"I would say that 90 to 95 percent of the students come back and tell me it was the most exciting time of their lives," Fenno says. "Their interest in politics is whetted, and it's a molding experience for many of them."

After graduation, Kennedy earned a master's degree in public-affairs journalism from American University. In the late 1970s, he joined the staff of Democratic Representative Jim Mattox of Dallas as a legislative assistant.

Later he moved to a staff position with Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who was subsequently elected state attorney general and then, in 1988, to the Senate.

In 1997, Kennedy left Lieberman's office for Wall Street, where he was director of issues management at Standard & Poor's.

But he found the lure of Washington too strong and within a few months was interviewed, and hired, for the White House job.

While Kennedy and the staff of attorneys--and much of the country, as news reports made it seem--were engulfed in the presidential scandal, the rest of the White House staff was working on policies and initiatives. Only about 1 percent were involved in dealing with the Lewinsky investigation, Kennedy says.

"I was always impressed by the ability of the president and his staff to stay focused on important issues," Kennedy says. "I think the public appreciated that, and we saw it in public opinion polls at the time."

As for reports that the White House was "under siege" because of the allegations and the relentless reporting, Kennedy paints a different picture.

Any frustration came from staff members who could not get attention for their work because Washington reporters were fixed on the impeachment scandal.

"I'm not saying people were unaffected by it, but it didn't detract from their willingness or ability to do their jobs," Kennedy says. "Reports about low morale or the siege mentality were completely overblown."

As for Kennedy himself, he developed his own comfort zone as he built relations with reporters. As the scandal dragged on, he became adept at dealing with all sorts of questions, including the ones he calls the "urban impeachment myths."

Among the Internet-fed rumors were reports of the existence of a secret White House taping system, or speculation that a "mystery intern" would corroborate Lewinsky's story, or the insinuation that the infamous "talking points" memo had originated in the White House.

"I got to the point where nothing shocked me in terms of the questions that were being asked," he says.

He credits his family--his wife, Nancy Cintron Kennedy, and their daughter, Ileana Beatriz--and the perspective that middle age brings with helping him deal with much of the stress.

The White House can be a dizzying place to people unprepared to deal with its pressures and powers.

"I'm glad to have had the experience in the middle of life and not too early," Kennedy says. "I think I was better able to handle the stresses of the past year at this point in my life than I would have been earlier in my career."

He also is better able to appreciate where he works, pointing out some of the milestones he's witnessed.

He attended the ceremony for the signing of the Wye River Peace Accords between the Israeli government and Palestinian representatives, and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that was meant to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

And 25 years after standing in Lafayette Park as Ford was sworn in, Kennedy shook the hand of the former president at a ceremony in which Ford received the Medal of Freedom.

Kennedy also was with Clinton's defense team on the Senate floor for the
final votes on impeachment.

"It was a difficult day," he says. "We were certainly elated that he was acquitted, but it was a difficult day for the entire country to have to go through."

But from a historical standpoint, Kennedy says, the political, cultural, and media atmospheres surrounding the Clinton impeachment were much different from the Watergate era.

Few crowds gathered this time in Lafayette Park, for example, and, according to many polls, most people outside Washington were not persuaded that the president should be removed from office.

"This is not something that rose to the level of 'high crimes and misdemeanors,' and I think the American people made a distinction in their minds in spite of the media overkill--or maybe because of it," he says.

Nor did he feel disappointed by Clinton's slow reversal from adamant denial of a relationship with Lewinsky to grudging acknowledgement of one that was "inappropriate."

That's partly because Kennedy came relatively late to the Clinton White House--"I didn't have a prior history with the president," he says--and partly because Kennedy always tried to put the president's personal behavior into the larger context of what his political policies meant for the country.

"I always felt that whatever the relationship was, it was private and not worth the extreme amount of attention it was incurring," he says.

He hopes both Democrats and Republicans have learned that the "politics of personal destruction is not the way to go."

"I hope that one of the lessons is that people realize that if everybody tries to destroy one another, everybody loses."

He also is concerned that the media and the public are becoming too cynical about their elected representatives.

"I worry about last year creating cynicism and a disconnect between people and the government," he says. "But I don't think it will have a lasting effect, because people will be drawn to getting involved because that's the way to get things done."

And the White House--no matter how many phone calls per diem and how difficult the questions asked--is still an exciting place to be.

"For someone interested in government and politics, it really is an unprecedented opportunity to serve," Kennedy says.

"If you're in sports, you have the Olympics, or if you're in baseball, you have the World Series, and if you're in politics, you have the White House."

When the conversation veers from presidential scandals, Kennedy still speaks of his job with the idealism of the political science and history major he used to be.

"Working in the White House is a limited, short-term opportunity that usually comes once in a lifetime," he says. "As I walk around here, I try never to lose sight of the sense of history of the place or the sense of obligation to contribute, even in some small way."

Scott Hauser is associate editor of Rochester Review. He profiled IBM research director Paul Horn '73 (PhD) in the last issue of the magazine.

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