Patrick Kennedy Tells Bill Maher: My Dad Thought I Was a Loser

You never know what to expect on HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, but last night's show included a guest saying something genuinely startling.

Former Democrat congressman Patrick Kennedy has been making the rounds to plug his new book, "A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction." Much of the media reaction to the book focuses on its unflattering revelations about the Kennedys, such as a failed family intervention in the early 1990s to stop Ted Kennedy from drinking.

Kennedy's appearance on Maher's show included a candid and saddening description of his father's opinion of him --

MAHER: You are talking about your book which is really a policy book on addiction and mental health. Obviously they're treating it as kind of a tell-all because you're a Kennedy, I mean, your father was Teddy Kennedy, your uncle was President John F. Kennedy, your cousin was John-John Kennedy, but it's not really that, right? You're trying to change the policy in this country.

KENNEDY: Well, I had the honor of serving in Congress and doing a lot with my late father to change policy in this space. You couldn't make it up but my dad was the sponsor of the mental health bill in the Senate and I was the sponsor of the one in the House and we actually had to negotiate with each other on what the final bill would look like. And the narrative of the story is that my dad was old-school and frankly his thinking is still very much alive today in terms of thinking of these things as character issues and not chemistry issues, or moral failings as opposed to medical issues.

But he didn't want addiction and alcoholism to be covered in his bill because they made the political calculation that America wasn't ready for that and that what we really ought to cover is just the severe and persistent mental illness, which I agree with. But if we're going to cover the brain, let's cover the whole brain, that was our contention, Congressman (Jim) Ramstad (R-Minn.), and at the end he came around and said, you know, Patrick, we can pass your bill after all, and then he helped me pass it. But what was amazing was that this was the guy that thought I was a loser because of my mental illness and addiction ....

Maher doesn't let this pass and interrupts to downplay what Kennedy has said --

MAHER: Well, not a, not a loser, right, but, but he could have been more understanding ...

KENNEDY: Well, he said, he said a lot of things like, all I needed was a good swift kick in the ass which in part he was right, but in part ....

MAHER (interrupting again): It's a generational thing more than anything else. He's World War II generation, so were my parents, I get that. They're very different and one thing I really learned from this book is that the Kennedys, I think when America thinks of the Kennedys they think of two things -- liberalism and tragedy. And the way the Kennedys dealt with tragedy is the way a lot of people in that generation dealt with tragedy -- you medicate with booze ...

KENNEDY: That's right.

MAHER: You deny.

KENNEDY: That's right.

MAHER: Stoicism, secrecy. And that's a lot of what your book talks about.

Only a few minutes later, when Kennedy referred to his father's struggles with drinking, Maher appears to have forgotten what he had just said about the Kennedys and others of his parents' generation self-medicating through drink to ease the pain of personal loss --

KENNEDY: ... people who drink a lot, you know, it's gregarious and all the rest, but my dad loved people whether he was drinking or not. And so, that was the great thing about him.

MAHER: And you think he could have been president if he had found a way to ...

KENNEDY: Well, think about the fact he was the greatest senator in the history of the country, or arguably one of the top five in the whole history of our country ...

MAHER: You're a little prejudiced but OK.

KENNEDY: OK (laughs). But he managed to do that, you know, with a couple of hands tied behind his back in terms of his full potential and I just think, you know, clearly he could have been president in my view if he hadn't had those struggles. The remarkable thing is that ...

MAHER: Well, the car thing didn't help. (Maher alluding to the death of 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign aide to Sen. Robert Kennedy who drowned while a passenger in Ted Kennedy's car in July 1969 after they left a party late at night on the island of Chappaquiddick off the Massachusetts coast. Kennedy managed to get out of the car and did not report the accident until the following morning).

KENNEDY: And that was a result, frankly, of the fact that ...

MAHER: Sure, he was probably ... (Maher stops short, appeared on the verge of referring to Kennedy's drinking on the night of Kopechne's death).

KENNEDY: ... he had seen both his brothers murdered, everybody else says they were assassinated but what they really were were murdered, violently, and then nobody bothered to say that, you know ...

MAHER: Well, you can't blame Chappaquiddick on the brothers being murdered. You could say he was sad because of that ...

KENNEDY: You could say that when both of your siblings are violently murdered and everyone knows you're drinking yourself into the ground because of it that someone would step in because these are real illnesses today, if you experienced that kind of post-traumatic stress and you need help. Instead they said (brushes hands together) keep going, keep going. And that's how tragedies take place.

MAHER: OK. We'll agree to disagree on that one.

Is Kennedy saying his father was not responsible for his actions? Not in the words I heard. What I hear him saying is that grief from the murders of two brothers caused his father to drink heavily -- and with tragic consequences at Chappaquiddick. What Kennedy did not mention, though it would bolster his case, is that his father suffered the loss of two other siblings before JFK and RFK -- his sister Kathleen to a plane crash in 1948, and oldest brother Joe during a bombing raid in World War II. How many people, outside war zones, have lost this many siblings to violent deaths?

Maher suggested that when Americans think of the Kennedys, liberalism and tragedy come to mind -- but alcohol and drug abuse are probably third on the list. And while this arguably has been the case for decades, as detailed in Kennedy's new book, it really wasn't true of the family before the pall cast by Chappaquiddick. The patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, long reputed to have made at least some of his vast fortune as a bootlegger during Prohibition, seldom drank, and this was also true of John and Robert.

Is it such a stretch to suggest that Ted Kennedy eventually becomes president had he stayed home that fateful night in July 1969? To the same extent to suggest a relative unknown named Jimmy Carter gets elected president when the pendulum swings back to the Democrats in 1976.

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