Shriver has no qualms about utilizing the Kennedy mystique
Shriver has no qualms about utilizing the Kennedy mystique
Jonathan Postal

The Camelot Legacy

"My whole life I was introduced as someone else," Anthony Kennedy Shriver quipped to the well-heeled crowd before him at a Toronto benefit dinner this past fall for his Best Buddies foundation. "I grew up the nephew of President Kennedy. Then I was the nephew of Senator Kennedy. Then I was the son of Sargent Shriver," he continued wryly. "Now I'm the brother-in-law of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Well, I have good news for you all: I continue to be a Democrat. I'm not a Republican!"

As comforting as that declaration might be to long-time admirers of the Kennedy clan, it's even more reassuring to Democratic Party officials. Shriver, who has called Miami Beach home since 1992, is increasingly looking like the Democrats' best chance for taking Florida's gubernatorial seat from the term-limited Jeb Bush in 2006. And though that election might still be nearly two years away, party insiders, desperate for some new blood and fresh faces worthy of the national stage, are already trying to persuade Shriver to commit to running.

It's not hard to see the 39-year-old Shriver's appeal. He has his family's trademark cheekbones, white picket-fence teeth, and tall, commanding presence. Yet his life also maintains a distinctly Miami hue, a South Beach recasting of Camelot. Shriver's Cuba-born wife, former ballerina Alina Mojica, may not possess a Hyannis Port pedigree, but for Democrats eager to woo South Florida's crucial Cuban-exile voters -- not to mention the rest of the state's Hispanics -- she's the stuff of crossover dreams.

Even better, while Shriver's Best Buddies organization (a nonprofit dedicated to mentoring and job-placing those with intellectual disabilities) epitomizes the family tradition of public service, Shriver has shown few qualms about utilizing the Kennedy mystique to reel in a diverse array of star power for fundraising galas. At what other Kennedy function would you find Paris Hilton pressing the flesh with singer Willie Nelson?

The downtown Miami headquarters of Best Buddies is a long way from its 1987 origins inside Shriver's Georgetown University dorm room. Today, with a ten-million-dollar annual budget, the organization provides more than five times that amount in volunteer services, matching more than 250,000 intellectually disabled people around the globe with personal "buddies," seeking to transition them out of institutions and into productive lives in the community at large. It's an impressive achievement for anyone, Kennedy or not.

However, Shriver's office hardly downplays his fabled legacy. There's a dash of South Beach gym culture on display -- several large bottles of vitamin supplements sit prominently on his desk -- but practically every inch of wall space is covered with four decades' worth of political mementos. A picture of "Uncle Ted's Historic Camping Trip" (that would be Senator "Uncle Ted" to you) competes for attention with a snapshot of Anthony at the side of Governor Schwarzenegger during his inauguration. A framed July 1963 Time cover of Shriver's father Sargent, touting his newly launched Peace Corps as the face of the Kennedy administration abroad, gazes at a large button from the 1972 presidential race, when Sargent was the Democratic vice presidential candidate alongside George McGovern. "Come Home America," the button pleads.

Given this backdrop, talking politics hardly seems inappropriate. Kulchur goes for broke.

Are you going to run for governor?

Shriver's eyes light up merrily. "Arnold's doing all the work right now," he shoots back with a hearty laugh. But instead of moving on, he launches into an impassioned soliloquy on holding public office. At times it sounds as if he's thinking aloud.

"I don't want to rule out anything," Shriver insists. "It's obviously a great opportunity to serve in a really important job. At some point in my life, if I felt that being in that position would be extremely effective and helpful to people in this state, I would consider it," he stresses, going on at tortured length about the heavy moral responsibilities such a move would entail. "When you talk to Arnold [Schwarzenegger] about why he ran, he really felt that at that point in California, it would make an enormous difference if he was the guy who took that job."

A simple No, I'm not running would have sufficed nicely. But Shriver is just getting started. There's more, much more, on the conflicts he'd feel over leaving Best Buddies under someone else's stewardship, as well as the vicious personal attacks he observed on both Schwarzenegger and his sister Maria as she hit the hustings with her husband. Yet despite all those impediments, he circles back to the new voices he feels the Democratic Party urgently needs, leadership that must come from younger figures who haven't spent their entire careers shuffling between government agencies and the campaign trail.

It's precisely this sort of Hamlet-esque anguished ambivalence that has Democratic operatives both excited and exasperated, because this isn't the first time Shriver has publicly flirted with a bid for office. In 1997 he weighed a run for Miami Beach mayor, an opportunity he considered again in 2001 at the behest of figures close to then-departing Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin.

And it's clear the governor's mansion has been on Shriver's mind for some time now. As far back as September, at that Toronto Best Buddies affair, Hollywood director and Miami Beach native Brett Ratner told Kulchur of his conversations on the subject with Shriver during his frequent Beach visits. "There's some stuff in his past that could prevent him from being governor," he cautioned. Then again, Ratner might be confusing his own exploits with Shriver's. "I lost my virginity by saying I was Bobby Kennedy, Jr.," he boasted playfully. "You can't believe how that helped me get girls in bed when I was growing up."

Shriver may want to expand his kitchen cabinet beyond Ratner. This time the stakes are much higher than merely Miami Beach, and it's not only local Democrats who are looking for a savior. Florida remains a swing state, and if the history of George W. Bush is any guide, a linchpin for the presidential battle of 2008. To that end, its gubernatorial field is already crowded with no less than five contenders who've begun amassing funds and securing backers: Betty Castor, who narrowly lost her 2004 U.S. Senate race to Mel Martinez; Lawton "Bud" Chiles III, son of the late governor; Tampa Rep. Jim Davis; Florida Democratic Party chairman Scott Maddox; and Gainesville State Rep. Rod Smith.

Yet none of these names has inspired much excitement. A December poll conducted by the Strategic Vision consulting firm showed the last three hopefuls being beaten handily by all the likely Republican contenders. Even "undecided" polled stronger numbers than the Democrats. That sentiment is shared by Shriver. "Some people fall in love with the idea of going to Tallahassee, the idea of being governor," he says. "I get it, I understand why they're intrigued by all that. But power isn't sexy to me. I've seen too many people in that position already."

Bud Chiles, he notes, came to him looking for a job two years ago, armed with elaborate expansion plans for Best Buddies. "It didn't work for me," he recalls tersely. And in Betty Castor, who's phoned him in hopes of support, he sees a candidate unable to forge a deep connection with voters or articulate a compelling message. We would seem to be back at square one.

"It's a wide-open race, there is no heir apparent," concludes Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes governors' races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report newsletter in Washington, D.C. But while she also remains less than wowed with the Democrats' current lineup, Shriver's possible entrance doesn't cause her to adjust her "toss-up" verdict regarding November 2006.

"The Kennedy name doesn't have quite the cachet it used to," Duffy argues. "Look at 2002 when Kathleen Kennedy Townsend [Bobby Kennedy's daughter] -- who was lieutenant governor -- got beat in the Maryland gubernatorial race and handed the Republicans the governorship for the first time there in almost three decades. Also in that cycle, Mark Shriver [Anthony's older brother] ran for Congress and got beat in the primary."

Anthony Shriver's Miami backers will be surprised, Duffy continues, when their boy begins campaigning around the state, "particularly when the South Beach version of Camelot goes to the Panhandle. Go talk to Alex Penelas about that."

Still, had Duffy caught Shriver in action at his most recent Best Buddies gala, an "Arabian Nights" fundraiser set on Star Island amid billowing tents, shimmying belly dancers, and loping camels, she might be less skeptical. Acting as an auctioneer of donated gift items and swanky vacation packages, Shriver expertly worked the crowd, cracking jokes, cheerfully goading well-known local executives to up their bids, and eventually pushing that night's take over $700,000.

It's easy to imagine those same glad-handing skills transferring to the political arena, especially when one of your best friends is communications mogul Philip Levine (Onboard Media), who loaned his $12 million sprawling property for that night's event. In the wake of personally giving more than $500,000 to the Democrats' 2000 presidential effort, Levine has quickly become not only a personal confidant of Bill Clinton, but one of Florida's top fundraisers for the party. And Shriver freely admits that Levine is dying to spring into action on his behalf: "He wants it, he'd love to do it."

Shriver's extended family, at least, is already on board. "I'm pumping up a Shriver card," Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy gushes to Kulchur. "I started at the state level, but he has the experience and the base of political support to jump in at the national level. People are just drawn to him."

Back in Shriver's office, his mood still hovers between coyness and introspection.

Have you been receiving any intriguing phone calls from Democratic Party consultants?

"Yeah, I hear this and that," Shriver replies with a shrug, trailing off. With obvious frustration in his voice, he starts again: "If you're on the sidelines, you look so great, you're the guy. But once you get in the game, you get beat up like everybody else. Attitudes change. People who were on your team drop right off it." He leans back in his chair and frowns, exhaling softly. "I was with my cousin Willie [Kennedy Smith] yesterday, and he just got beat up with this whole rape thing.... You have to let it go in one ear and out the other. You can't let it drag you down."

Media scrutiny has certainly been a feature of the Kennedys' lives, but it's unclear just what makes Shriver himself so wary. After all, unlike his many cousins, his own past has been relatively free of scandal. The only headline-grabbing incident came in January 1993, when Shriver literally crashed a party at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach. Racing his Jeep Cherokee around the grounds and through its hedges, he sent an array of Trump's guests -- from notorious Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi to cosmetics queen Estée Lauder -- running for cover. "Yes, there is damage to my property," Trump told reporters, but he refused to press charges. "The Kennedys have had so much trouble in their lives, I just don't want to be the reason for causing them any more."

Boys will be boys, a penitent (and 28-year-old) Shriver later explained to Trump. It was only his name that turned a misguided prank into a national news story. Perhaps Shriver is simply tired of wearing the mantle of "Son of Camelot," of being the repository for so many other people's dreams.

Are you sick of being a Kennedy?

"It's not like it was," he demurs good-naturedly. "A lot of it has dissipated, especially outside Massachusetts. People get a little excited here and there, but it's not like I'm Beyoncé and people are screaming when I walk by. " But "the benefits far outweigh the negatives," he adds. "It's an enormous asset in what I do. Raising money is tough. Setting up boards and programs, it's tough. Every little advantage you can muster up helps, and having that name helps enormously -- especially in going to a foreign country. It gets everything moving rapidly. When I flew into Colombia, I was able to meet right away with the president. I could never do that if I weren't a Kennedy. The First Lady joined Best Buddies the next day."

After two hours of conversation, Kulchur is beginning to feel like the heavy in a Frank Capra film, putting the squeeze on an earnest Jimmy Stewart. With all the machinations and back-room maneuverings that have traditionally defined Florida politics, Shriver's reluctance to "play the game," to accede to other folks' expectations of what a Kennedy should do, may be one of his most appealing qualities. To be sure, his long-range vision is set on a date far beyond 2006.

"I was talking to my uncle last summer," Shriver remembers, describing a philosophical powwow with Sen. Edward Kennedy, "and he said that everybody starts off trying to get to the top of Mt. Everest, the pinnacle of success. Over his life, he's learned that once you start climbing, there's really nothing else you have to do. Once you get close to the top, you're by yourself. Everybody else has fallen off, they've got so many issues: They're divorced, their kids got messed up, they lost their job, they changed direction five times, they have emotional problems, they became drug addicts. Everybody else has so many challenges, that if you just stay focused and keep your head down, keep doing what you need to do every day, there's a good chance you'll be the guy who ascends to the summit without beating up anybody else. They'll have all fallen off.

"I'm not saying he's the greatest guy in the world, but you have to admit he's a great senator. He's been sitting there grinding it out for 42 years. Guys come, guys go, but he just keeps hammering away. You can accomplish an enormous amount if you stay focused and keep grinding it out day after day.

"That's one of the advantages of Best Buddies. There are a lot of people who've been here for a long time. We get the message, we understand our influence, we feel the emotional connection with the cause. It would take a lot for someone like me to break away from that."

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