As a child, Kennedy battled shyness and loneliness. As a teenager, he pursued treatment for cocaine abuse. And he dropped out of Georgetown after two weeks on campus, overwhelmed by the family presence in Washington.
But whatever his misgivings about the family trade, he was still drawn to it. In 1986, Kennedy left the capital for Massachusetts, where he volunteered for his cousin Joe's congressional campaign. Shortly after enrolling at Providence College, he took aim at a seat in the Rhode Island legislature held by a long-time party loyalist.
Kennedy's bid inspired grumbling among politicos and the public alike. The kid was a carpetbagger, they said. An appearance on Vincent "Buddy" Cianci's talk-radio show turned sour when callers peppered him with questions about streets in the district.
But with family members plying those same streets, Kennedy prevailed with 57 percent of the vote. It was, at once, a shameless application of royal power and a disarming attempt to begin his political career on the lower rungs.
"He started out at as a state rep, went door-to-door," says former House majority leader Dick Gephardt, who would later serve as a mentor to Kennedy in the US House. "He did things that a lot of other people from famous families don't want to do."
Still, when he arrived in Washington six years later, he faced more than a little skepticism. "I think he came to Congress having to fight off two things," says Jennifer Duffy, a Rhode Island native and analyst with the "Cook Political Report." "One was being potential heir to the Kennedy legacy, but the other was being the son of a sitting senior senator . . . and having people wonder if you got there on your own."
Kennedy responded by putting his head down. He avoided the national media and instead courted the local press. And he used a seat on the House Armed Services Committee, renamed the National Security Committee by the newly ascendant Republicans, to steer federal dollars toward Rhode Island's sizable defense sector.
It was an odd vocation for a liberal Democrat. In order to win support for Rhode Island projects, he had to offer up votes for Cold War relics in other districts. The kind of weapons his father, for one, had long opposed.
But Kennedy, aware of the expectations that came with his pedigree, was under an unusual pressure to deliver federal largesse to the district. "I knew there was an obligation that I had to the First District voters," he says, "that I was going to be effective beyond the average member."
Kennedy owed much of his early success to his relationship with Gephardt, who raised money for the would-be congressman during his first House campaign and took him under his wing when he arrived in Washington.
It was a tie born of ideology, circumstance, and family connection. And friends say it was unusually tight. "Patrick looked up to him," says one Kennedy confidante. "Patrick turned to him for advice. Patrick had to fess up to him."
Gephardt, stung by the Gingrich revolution, had a singular focus. "At the time," says Steve Elmendorf, former chief of staff for Gephardt, "we were completely and totally focused on winning the House back."
And the then-minority leader gave his protégé a central role in his project: chairman of the DCCC for the 2000 election cycle.