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Senate Race In Massachusetts: The Confessions of Kennedy’s Challenger

By Jacob Rowbottom - posted Wednesday, 19 April 2000

Recent times have been troubled for the Republican Party in Massachusetts. Despite the success in getting Paul Cellucci elected Governor in 1998, his time in office has been weighed down with a series of mini-scandals. Worse still, he is isolated in a state where the Democrats have a hold on the state legislature, and hold all the seats in the US Congress. With such a background, the GOP now face the political equivalent of climbing Mount Everest in attempting to topple Senator Edward Kennedy in the 2000 race.

Not only is Kennedy one of the most famous political figures in the USA, he is a seven term incumbent. To come close to what seems an impossible target, you may expect the party to pick one of the State’s brightest up and coming politicians. Someone with credibility but with a fresh approach and new ideas. Instead the Republicans have a candidate whose campaign so far has been described as a ‘kamikaze mission’ and ‘the political equivalent of diving headfirst off the high board into an empty swimming pool’.

Kennedy’s challenger is Jack E. Robinson III, a 39 year old entrepreneur from Massachusetts with both law and business degrees from Harvard. Despite never holding office before, Robinson was embraced by GOP officials having pledged to spend $1 million of his own money on the campaign. Shortly after announcing his candidacy for the US Senate, Robinson was involved in a car crash while being interviewed on his cell-phone for a radio show. This incident has become a metaphor for the whole campaign.


Most attention for the campaign has focused on a document posted on his website ( The website may not include details of Robinson’s policies or stances, but it contains ‘the Robinson Report’, a dossier the candidate has written about himself offering and explaining any scandals that may be brought up. The report has subheadings including: ‘Motor Vehicle Incident’ (1 & 2); ‘Copyright Case’; ‘$10 Million Lawsuit’; ‘Drugs’; and, of course, ‘Restraining Order’.

Under some of the headings Robinson is quite simply candid. His explanation for failing three bar exams is to the point: "I didn’t really study for them". Robinson can also be sickeningly earnest. Under the heading ‘Drugs’ he shares with the reader "I did make the mistake of actually inhaling one puff of regular cigarette when I was teenager back in the early 1970s. I was sick for three days and haven’t touched a cigarette since". You can just imagine Kennedy’s opposition researchers kicking themselves that they hadn’t uncovered that silver bullet first.

In other parts of the report it is difficult to understand what Robinson is trying to achieve. He discusses an occasion where the police pulled him up for drink driving. Despite having had a couple of glasses of wine he was still within the limits under Massachusetts law. While being legally sober he concedes that he may still have been impaired, and then demands ‘zero tolerance’ for those who act as he once did. Robinson holds himself up as a reason why existing laws are bad. It is one thing for a politician to say they have learned from experience, but it is hard to market this incident as a defining experience that gives you credibility in this area.

Robinson also defends a book that he wrote on the history of Pan-Am airlines that was later found to violate copyright law being largely derived from an earlier work. His explanation is that histories are written when "one author builds upon the work of the previous author". What he fails to see is that most histories build on and analyse numerous different works – distinguishing works of scholarship from straightforward plagiarism.

What has made Robinson put forward such unusual document? According to his own publicity machine this openness is part of "a John McCain-style campaign". Unfortunately for Robinson the similarity to McCain will likely be that he will attract a great deal of attention but ultimately be unsuccessful. It is true that in the presidential primaries a greater degree of openness was seen with the candidates by talking about personal experiences or disclosing health records. But the Robinson Report is in a league of its own. In most of the examples he claims he did no wrong, so is it supposed to be an exhaustive list of every potential scandal that he could face? Furthermore as the above examples show, his accounts do not give him an air of integrity, but rather make him look foolish. Now that he has opened up his personal life as an issue, how far should this line of inquiry go? To put it bluntly Robinson’s move has merely led to his portrayal as someone who seriously lacks judgement

The problems of his candidacy have also led to problems within the GOP. State Republicans including the Governor have already withdrawn support from Robinson, but the National Republican Senatorial Committee has pledged to support him if he is capable of putting up a credible campaign. You may wonder why the Republicans should put up such a struggle in public over a seat they are bound to lose? There are two reasons why the GOP should have conducted a more thorough vetting of their candidates. Firstly running against Kennedy provides a great opportunity to put an up and coming politician in front of state-wide audience, giving a practice run for other state battles.


Secondly, and more immediately, Kennedy is a huge fundraising resource for national Democrats. A credible opponent means that Kennedy will have to spend more time within the state to keep the seat, which in turns means he has less time to help raise money for Al Gore and other Democrat candidates.

It is unclear how this candidate will continue – whether it is already a sinking ship that any credible politician would not touch, or whether Republicans will rally behind Robinson. In the meantime the Robinson Report certainly provides comic relief in the post presidential primary lull.

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About the Author

Jacob Rowbottom is a lecturer in law at the University of Cambridge and author of Democracy Distorted (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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