Kennedy's Democratic Distraction

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When a member of Congress named Kennedy has a car accident possibly under the influence, and a run-in with police to boot, it's bound to be big news. But for Democrats, it is also bound to be a big headache.

And so it was when Rep. Patrick Kennedy, 38, smashed his car into a barricade on Capitol Hill around 2:45 a.m. on Thursday morning, which was first reported by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. About 36 hours later Kennedy, a Rhode Island Congressman and the youngest of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's three children with his wife Joan Kennedy, was standing before microphones on Capitol Hill to announce that he was headed to the famed Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to battle what he said had been a longtime struggle with addiction and depression. He also told the group that he'd been in rehab at the clinic as recently as Christmas.

"Of course, in every recovery, each day has its ups and downs, but I have been strong, focused and productive since my return," he said. Explaining why he wanted to head back to Mayo, Kennedy added, "I simply do not remember getting out of bed, being pulled over by the police, or being cited for three driving infractions." Kennedy also declared: "That's not how I want to live my life. And that's not how I want to represent the people of Rhode Island."

In an earlier statement issued on Thursday, Kennedy denied consuming alcohol and said that he was under the influence of two medications that had been prescribed to him by the Capitol physician —Phenergan, an antinausea medication, and Ambien, a sleep aid which recent studies have shown may be linked to many car accidents across the country.

But numerous reports are already surfacing that cast some doubt on that explanation. Roll Call quoted a letter from a Capitol Police union official who urged an investigation into whether Kennedy had received preferential treatment. According to the letter, officers approached Kennedy after the crash, in which he reportedly swerved into the wrong lane through a construction zone and nearly hit a police cruiser. After finally coming to a stop, Kennedy allegedly staggered as he got out of his car and appeared intoxicated. The letter charges that the officers were forbidden from performing a sobriety test on Kennedy under orders from their watch commander and were told to drive him home. In his first statement, Kennedy insisted that he did not "ask for any special consideration" from the police. But a statement later issued by the Capitol Police said that the commander on the scene had acted inappropriately in failing to administer a sobriety test and would be disciplined.

This isn't the first embarrassing public episode for Patrick Kennedy, who several years ago admitted that he had battled addiction and undergone therapy and taken medication to help treat depression, In March of 2000, he was videotaped shoving a Los Angeles airport security guard, and in August, the Coast Guard intervened when he had an argument with a girlfriend on a rented yacht. Since he became the youngest Kennedy elected to office when he won a seat in the Rhode Island state house at the age of 21, Kennedy has made no secret of the fact that the family legacy can weigh on his generation. In an interview with TIME back in July of 2001, he said that since privacy is the "ultimate luxury" in his position, "there's no sense hiding anything, because it's all out there. I guess it makes you honest about your frailties, because, guess what? You've got to get to a place where you can deal with them, because there's no running away from them in this business." Asked if he worried that public scrapes could hurt his political future, Kennedy said "there's no mortal blows there. It's really a question of how I respond — whether I react, or respond... I'm still in this lifetime journey of living and learning, but I think I have been around back home enough for people to take a full view of me and not have me isolated to a few negative headlines or sensational reporting."

The episode comes at a particularly inopportune moment for Democrats, who currently seem poised to make substantial gains in this fall's elections — if not take back control of the House and Senate. A new AP/Ipsos poll out Friday shows only a quarter of Americans approving of the job Congress is doing and fully 51 percent of Americans saying they hope Democrats control Congress this fall, versus only 34 percent who want Republicans to retain power. But most notably, the poll showed the collapse of conservative support for Bush and the lack of enthusiasm conservatives have for this November's congressional elections. Democrats, according to the poll, are much more excited about the upcoming races.

But a Kennedy car crash could change that, especially if there are indications he received any special deference because he's a Congressman or a Kennedy. After all, Kennedy-bashing is in the DNA of many conservatives and this incident even echoes some aspects of the deadly 1969 Chappaquiddick episode that thwarted Patrick's father's presidential ambitions. And the incident, not suprisingly, is already firing up conservative talk radio.

On television, Robert Novak, the conservative columnist, was already raising the possibility that Kennedy may have abused a little-known constitutional provision that forbids members from being detained or arrested if they're on their way to a vote. Kennedy initially said that he was doing just that, since he was "disoriented" by the medication and didn't realize that the House had adjourned some three hours earlier.

Other events on the political horizon may animate conservatives as well. There's an upcoming battle over the judicial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, the White House Staff Secretary, to be on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the second highest court in the land. Kavanaugh, a 38-year-old GOP veteran who worked for Whitewater Special Counsel Kenneth Starr, faces a possible filibuster. And Washington State's Supreme Court may soon strike down the state's marriage statute as discriminatory — making it the second state, after Massachusetts, to legalize gay marriage. Since Washington has no marriage residency requirement, one conservative activist dubs such a ruling "Massachusetts on steroids."

Kennedy's referred TIME to the Senator's statements. But no matter what he says, the incident isn't likely to go away anytime soon, which is exactly what Republicans are counting on.

—With reporting by Perry Bacon Jr., Timothy J. Burger, and Karen Tumulty/Washington