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The best place to see how the Kennedy past serves the Kennedy present may be the leafy Maryland estate of Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, J.F.K.'s brother-in-law and sister. One recent summer Sunday afternoon found Arnold Schwarzenegger strolling across his in-laws' park-size lawn in a lavender polo shirt and pondering the $28 cigar someone had handed him. "The most dangerous thing," he chortled, "is Democrats with money." Eunice and her television-star daughter Maria, Schwarzenegger's wife, were working the driveway, where people were arriving by the hundreds. And over by the rented pony ride, a Today show camera crew was trailing Maria's cousin, the woman everyone expects to be the next Governor of Maryland. "We really come from a wonderful family," said Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
That "family picnic" was the second fund raiser there in less than a week for Mark Kennedy Shriver, who is looking to step up to Congress from the Maryland state assembly. A month before, the $10-a-head "50th-birthday party" the Shrivers threw for Kathleen backed up traffic more than a mile as nearly 5,000 people showed up for R.F.K.'s eldest.
Is it any wonder that no credible opponent of either party has stepped forward to challenge her? "There is a classic Kennedy formula," says Brown University political scientist Darrell West. "It's based on media, money and scaring off the opposition."
Counting the in-laws, the family has the potential to stretch its brand of celebrity politicians from coast to coast. Schwarzenegger, the clan's lone Republican, took a pass on next year's California Governor's race but says he'll probably run for something someday. Andrew Cuomo, who is married to R.F.K.'s daughter Kerry, has his own pedigree as the son of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, but in trying to avenge his dad's gubernatorial loss to George Pataki, he's relying almost as much on his Camelot connection. "Why do we love Andrew Cuomo?" TV's Rosie O'Donnell asked 1,000 people at Cuomo's $1.5 million fund raiser in Manhattan this summer. "He had the good sense to marry a Kennedy."
Is it noblesse oblige that propels some Kennedys toward elected office, or a sense of divine right? Do they represent the last gasp of an old order, or the first breath of a new one? "I definitely would not be where I am today if it weren't for my family name and connections," says Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, 34, who used that name and those connections to shatter fund-raising records last year as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "I often joke that I'm the best example of why there should be campaign-finance reform."
But the rules of the game have changed, even for the Kennedys. Patrick, Ted's younger son, recalls Caroline's reaction to the news that he was mentoring two cousins considering congressional races: "Mark and Max coming to you for advice? God help us." But he says there are some insights that only a Kennedy can offer another Kennedy, and chief among them is this: "Disabuse yourself of the notion that there's this machine out there that just kind of materializes when you say, 'Yes--go!' Growing up watching politics as my cousins and I did, you had this warped sense that that's all you needed to do. That was the way it was for my father's generation."