Everyone seemed to have an opinion when the Democratic Party asked Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) to deliver the official response to President Trump's State of the Union address on Tuesday night. To some, Kennedy — a 37-year-old former prosecutor with two young children — comes across as the perfect embodiment of what the new Democratic Party says it stands for. Others couldn't get past his last name.
It's a point Kennedy said he heard loud and clear, "amid the deafening calls for less Chapstick" (the internet erupted with chatter over how glossy his lips looked during his speech). All kidding aside, Kennedy said he's proud of his family background, but fully embraces the calls for more seats at the table.
"The way that I approach politics, or I seek to approach politics, is that you don't discount somebody for who they are," Kennedy tells Bustle. "If they have something to add or to offer, great, let's hear them out. ... The views that I put forward are going to be informed by my own experience and my upbringing and my time in office and, you know, what I have to bring to the table. There are an awful lot of other talented views that need to be incorporated in that as well."
Kennedy is the grandson of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY), who served as his brother President John F. Kennedy's attorney general and was assassinated in 1968. That makes JFK the congressman's great-uncle, along with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. And that makes Joe Kennedy a member of America's most storied political dynasty and a high-society millionaire. Now, Americans are asking whether Tuesday night's speech solidifies Kennedy's status as a rising star.
"It certainly resonated more than I expected it would," Kennedy says of his address, which he delivered in front of a live audience at Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, Massachusetts. "Look, I grew up around politics. I understand and expect there's going to be differences of opinion, and that diversity of opinion... is the whole point, that's a good thing. What I would hope is ... to have an open and informed debate about what the right path forward is. Not just with regards to our government policy, but with regards to the way we also conduct that debate as well."
Kennedy never mentioned Trump by name in his speech, but America's 45th president loomed large in Diman's auto shop classroom. “For them, dignity isn’t something you’re born with, but something you measure — by your net worth, your celebrity, your headlines, your crowd size," Kennedy says of the president and his administration. "Not to mention, the gender of your spouse, the country of your birth, the color of your skin, the God of your prayers.”
Over the course of the year, the West Wing has struggled to deal with controversies of the president's own making, from his insistence that "there were good people on both sides" of the white supremacist rally that left one counter-protester dead last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, to his frustration over "having all these people from sh*thole countries" immigrate to the United States.
"He attempted to have a unifying message," Kennedy said of Trump's address. "But we also have a year worth of a record of actions and inactions from his administration that I think show something far different than an effort to unify the country. And what I tried to do was to put those action by this administration in context. ... As you examine them, I think you do see a narrative that comes together where this administration is attempting to create a zero-sum framework for our country. And I think that's extremely destructive."
Kennedy cited Trump's immigration proposal to legalize the status of more than a million Dreamers while severely limiting legal immigration. The plan has Congress bitterly divided and leaders of both parties up in arms. Trump tried to sell his plan to the American people during Tuesday's speech, but made no changes to woo Democrats who dislike it for its crackdown on legal immigration, nor the Republicans who see the plan as "amnesty" for lawbreakers.
"He put forth a plan that he knows has no chance of passing Capitol Hill at all," Kennedy said, "and then framed it as a take it or leave it. That's not the way politics works. We've seen the president refer to deals before, it has to be where one side wins and one side loses. You're the president of the United States. You're not supposed to root for part of America to lose."
"These are the people you are elected to govern, even if they didn't vote for you," Kennedy said.
Kennedy is a three-term congressman who was first elected to the House in the seat of former Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), the first openly gay member of Congress. He's a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School and spent time volunteering with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. In Tuesday's speech, he used the Spanish skills he'd honed overseas to speak directly to the millions of Dreamers brought to the United States as children. “You are a part of our story,” he said. “We will fight for you. We will not walk away.”
As for Kennedy's own story — which includes rumblings of a future presidential bid, if you're listening to the pundits — the congressman says he's up for reelection this year and is focusing on the job at hand. "I've got a six-week-old baby and a 2-year-old child," he says. "I don't know if I'm sleeping tonight. That's kind of my horizon."
On the heels of what Kennedy considers a successful speech, and "obviously the biggest speech" of his career, Bustle asked the congressman if there's anything he'd do differently next time. His answer: "Less chapstick, one. And two, I talk fast, and I would probably try and talk a little slower."