Joe Kennedy III on his legacy and future

Q&A with Rep. Joe Kennedy III
Q&A with Rep. Joe Kennedy III 07:12

Congressman Joseph Kennedy III is the latest in his storied clan to be carrying the torch President John F. Kennedy spoke of in his 1961 Inaugural Address. It's a family legacy very much on his mind, as he recently told "CBS This Morning"'s Gayle King:

Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy III's home is filled with family photos and keepsakes that also happen to be national treasures, such as the picture of his father with his grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy with his son, Joe Kennedy Jr. CBS News

RFK was assassinated in 1968. At the time, Joe Kennedy's father was just 15. 

At 37, Congressman Kennedy is the latest of the legendary Democratic clan to pick up the political mantle. He's well aware of all that implies.

King asked, "Every time you give a speech, any time you go somewhere, don't you think you're being compared to all the Kennedys that came before you?"

"On the one hand, yes, I am," he said. "On the other hand, how the heck do you compare yourself to President Kennedy on every speech, right? You're not gonna be as good! It's just not gonna happen!"

Gayle King with Rep. Joe Kennedy III. CBS News

He's not letting that stop him from speaking his mind.  Last year, it was Kennedy's stand against cuts to the healthcare law that first put the three-term Congressman in the national spotlight. Kennedy had responded to House Speaker Paul Ryan referring to a plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act an "act of mercy": "With all due respect for our Speaker, he and I must have read different scripture," Kennedy said.

"I have a hard time understanding how cutting the program in our country that provides healthcare to working families by $800 billion can be classified as mercy," Kennedy said.

Now he says he wants Congress to take action to protect kids from school shootings. But he says he's frustrated with the direction of the gun control debate into what he called "absurd conversations about arming teachers and turning our schools into fortresses."

"You do feel that's absurd, arming teachers?" asked King.

"I think it's absurd on so many levels," Kennedy said.

"As as an elected official, though, what do you see your role in the shootings? Do you feel empowered? Do you feel guilt?"

"It's horrifying, Gayle, 'cause we've gone through this over and over and over again. I have no doubt that at some point historians will look back at this moment and say the government failed our kids. The question is, how quickly will we correct that mistake?"

Kennedy decided to get into politics back in 2012, when longtime Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank retired. But before he launched his campaign, his father -- also a former Massachusetts Congressman -- had unexpected advice. 

Joe Kennedy III with his father, former Congressman Joe Kennedy Jr. CBS News

"The person that actually pushed me hardest not to do this was my dad," Kennedy said. "He said, 'Make sure that this is something that, one, you're ready for, and, two, that you find somewhere inside you that this is a commitment that is coming from you. Because if it is not, people will tell.'"

He says he fights for national issues like equal pay for equal work and protecting benefits for seniors with his constituents in mind. Still, as he told talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, he's against legalizing marijuana beyond medical use, even though it's legal in his home state. 

"The American public will give you an awful lot of slack on how you voted on one issue or another if they feel like you have a reason," Kennedy said. "What will get you elected through a tough election cycle and what will get you kicked out when you should have won is whether your constituents feel like their Member of Congress respects them or not."

And that's true of his most important constituent: his wife, Lauren. They married in 2012, after meeting as classmates at Harvard Law School. 

King asked, "So at what point does it go, 'Hey, Joe,' 'Hey, Lauren'?"

"I'm not sure when it went, 'Hey, Joe.' It went, 'Hey, Lauren' pretty quickly!" Joe laughed. "And it took a little while for her to warm up."

And did Lauren know he was a Kennedy? "I didn't know he was one of those Kennedys," she laughed. "I grew up in California. So, [growing] up out there, you get a little less of the sort of, 'Here's what each one of them looks like,' and the 'Where are they now?' which was kind of nice. I got the opportunity just to get to know Joe for who he was. And the rest is history."

Not so fast! First, Joe Kennedy of the famously Catholic, liberal Kennedys had to meet Lauren's Protestant, conservative family.

"It was quite a moment for them when I sort of announced that I was coming home with my new boyfriend, who is Joe Kennedy," she laughed. 

They now have two children: Eleanor, who's two, and baby James, who was born in December. 

Joe Kennedy III with wife Lauren and daughter Eleanor. CBS News

A month later, Kennedy was tapped for the high-profile Democratic response to President Trump's State of the Union Address. But not everything went according to plan:

"You're waiting for the president to end, which took a little while this time around," Kennedy said. "He went a little long. I was in this unfortunate circumstance of trying to balance water consumption and ChapStick application, and messed up on one of those!" he laughed.

Yes, "ChapStick-gate." During his speech, a shine at the corner of his mouth drove some viewers to distraction.

Lauren said, "From our angle, all you could sort of see was the lights reflecting off it. And so, when we got in the car ride home, I immediately started looking at Twitter to see if indeed his lips had looked a little extra shiny," she laughed.

"Turns out Twitter could be mean!" Joe deadpanned.

"It's a vicious, vicious Twitter-verse out there," Lauren added.

But the viciousness didn't stick. Joe Kennedy III remains a rising star, in part because he seems to rise above the fray … and in politics that could be worth everything.

King asked Kennedy about a remark by a former chair of the Democratic National Committee who said, "This is a Kennedy who could be president. A must-watch."

"Should we be watching you in 2020?" she asked.

"I wouldn't hold your breath on that one," he said. "I happen to be in a position where the moment you have one job, the first thing everybody wants to know is, when are you trying to get another one? I've got a pretty full plate. The job's the easiest part of my day, and it's not even close. 

"There is nothing so humbling as being a parent to young children!" he laughed. 

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Story produced by Mary Raffalli.