Tragedy Strikes Again

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The drama unfolded on New Year's Eve, a day the Kennedys spent celebrating the fact that another bad year had finally ended. The family measures misfortune on its own scale; the terrible years have ended in violent death, the merely bad years are defined by crimes and misdemeanors. Right up until dusk on the very last day of 1997, this looked to be the latter. The worst moments of the year were more tawdry than tragic, though bad enough to derail Michael's promising political career. During his years running the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp., and helping his Uncle Ted win a tough Senate re-election fight in 1994, Michael had earned a reputation as a creative philanthropist and political counselor. He was all set to run his brother Joe's campaign for Governor of Massachusetts, and then maybe run for office himself. But that chapter reached its ugly ending last April, when Michael's 16-year marriage publicly collapsed amid accusations that he had had an affair with the family baby sitter, allegedly beginning when she was just 14.

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Prosecutor Jeffrey Locke eventually decided not to press charges of statutory rape, but the damage was done. It turned out that in 1995 Michael had sought treatment for alcoholism and then, a year later, for sex addiction. Joe, embroiled in public discord with his former wife over the circumstances of the annulment of their marriage, withdrew from the race. He and Michael were dubbed "poster boys for bad behavior" by cousin John F. Kennedy Jr. in an editorial in his magazine George.

In the months after the meltdown, Michael retreated to his seaside home in Cohasset, south of Boston, and immersed himself in his work. But shame is fleeting; heir to a tradition of repentance and reinvention, Michael consulted a publicist to help get the spotlight off him and onto the work he was doing for Citizen Energy. In October he appeared at an AIDS conference at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. And there were reports that he was trying to restore some stability to his private life as well. Though separated, he and Victoria missed at least one divorce hearing, and they were seen dining cordially in various Boston restaurants. "The normalcy was for their children," says Tom O'Neill, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. "The kids are at the core."

An older generation of Kennedys died fighting for the great causes of the century: Joe Kennedy Jr. went down over the English Channel, fighting Hitler. His brothers John and Robert were assassinated in the midst of crusades--against communism, for civil rights--that they were prepared to die for. This younger branch of the family has always sailed smaller boats in higher winds. As a teenager, Michael jumped off a 75-ft. cliff above the Snake River in Wyoming during a rafting trip. Brother Robert, while at Harvard, leaped 10 feet between two six-story dorms on a dare. He was arrested in 1983 for heroin possession. Joe II drove his jeep off the road in 1973, paralyzing family friend Pam Kelley. Brother David died in 1984 of a drug overdose. It is all more than any family can bear, especially without the abiding solace of martyrdom to some cause greater than a thrill and a game.

--Reported by Terry McCarthy/Aspen, Charlotte Faltermayer/New York and Tom Witkowski/Boston

With reporting by Terry McCarthy/Aspen, Charlotte Faltermayer/ New York and Tom Witkowski/Boston

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