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Joe Kennedy: Read My Message, Not My Lips

NEWTON, Mass.—Joseph Kennedy III is well aware of all the jokes about what looked to many like a bit of drool hanging off his lips during his response to the president’s State of the Union speech.

“Disappointing” is how the up-and-coming Massachusetts Democrat described the mocking reaction in an interview publishing in full next week for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. On the brighter side, he said, “We kind of got to push through it. I’d like to think that part of the message I tried to deliver last night was an important one. Easy to understand why the people I was criticizing would look for any way to deflect it.”

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In Tuesday’s rebuttal of the president’s prime-time address—traditionally a thankless job that has damaged many a promising political career—Kennedy gave a generally well-received 10 minutes urging Americans to “have faith: the state of our union is hopeful, resilient and enduring.”

Next stop for that message will be Thursday outside Pittsburgh, where the 37-year-old Kennedy will fly in for a trip that was already on the books to appear at several events for Conor Lamb, the Democrat running in the suddenly competitive House special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District.

But first, he followed up his speech touching on Barack Obama-esque themes of diversity, equality and overcoming false choices with an email sent to the network of Obama supporters on the Organizing for Action list, writing, “That is our choice. That is who we are. And it’s time to fight for it.”

Kennedy, who delivered his speech in the auto shop of a technical school at the south end of his district in Fall River, was praised by a range of people for his speech but mocked by some—including a number of prominent Republicans—for the shininess in one corner of his mouth throughout the 10-minute speech.

It was a classic example of an issue that appeared only on television: the reflection of the lights wasn’t visible to anyone in the room, and he and staff became aware of it only after the broadcast was done.

It was also a classic example of how the peanut gallery nature of Twitter can shape perceptions across the wider media. Kennedy painted a dark portrait of America on the brink, Nazi marches and mass shootings, “and that nagging, sinking feeling, no matter your political beliefs, ‘This is not right. This is not who we are.’”

Kennedy wasn’t defensive. He sees the hubbub over his shiny lips as another symptom of his larger argument: that when “far bigger” issues are actually at stake, it can seem like everything is the chaos, partisanship and politics of the past year.

“All of us bear some responsibility for that too,” he said. “It is a fractured and divided country. There are undeniably a sizable percentage of our population that steadfastly supports the president. People who don’t support the president have to acknowledge that.”

It’s even more a measure, he said, of how nervous the attacks show some of the president’s supporters to be.

“They can point out too much Chapstick all they want—it doesn’t mean that the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice isn’t rolling back civil rights protections. It doesn’t mean that an economic plan put forth by this administration is largely zero sum—that it is benefiting somebody at the expense of somebody else,” he said. “It does not get away from the fact that the tone and the rhetoric our president has used has continued to divide America. And it’s not going to stop the fact that I think that’s wrong.”

He’s started tossing back mentions of the episode with self-effacing promises to use less Chapstick, and added, “I like to think that if I can learn that lesson that quickly, some of the folks that are criticizing me can as well.”

Republicans and others also criticized Kennedy’s selection as showing the dearth of Democratic stars and ideas, dismissing him as either a white man, a Massachusetts liberal, a dynastic politician—he is the grandson of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy—or some combination of the above.

“On the one hand, all those things are more or less true,” Kennedy said of the japes at his privileged background. “Part of what I tried to point out last night was that there’s far more issues, opportunities, obstacles, challenges that unite those various identity groups than divide them, and I think this administration is using some cheap form of exploiting those divisions to exercise their own political agenda. That might work in the short term. I’ve never seen that work in the long run in our country.”

Mouth glare aside, Kennedy’s speech earned high marks from across the political spectrum, from former Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes, who tweeted while watching, “Kennedy is accomplishing something very hard—fighting back while offering a unifying message,” to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who followed up a tweet about the “drool-mouth” by writing, “Joe Kennedy did a better job drawing a sharp contrast with the GOP than any Democratic SOTU response since Tim Kaine 15 years ago.”

Kennedy said he knew what he was getting into when he agreed to do the response, and that he’d face attacks, adding, “Nobody doing that speech is going to be able to match the circumstance and the ceremony.”

The Democratic leadership put choosing the location and drafting of the speech—as well as all the logistics for the event—in his hands. On just one week’s notice, his staff reviewed previous response speeches and decided he needed to be in front of a crowd.

“There might be some compelling speakers out there that can hold a televised crowd for seven, eight, 10 minutes, direct to camera, but I’m not one of them,” he said. “You can do it for 30 seconds, 45 seconds—unless you’re Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, it gets pretty tough. And I’m not either of them.”

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