With Death of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Generational Saga Comes Closer to a Close

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of John F. Kennedy, devoted her life to helping the mentally disabled and founded the Special Olympics as a showcase for their abilities.
By Vince Bzdek
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Three days before John F. Kennedy won his first campaign, the 1946 Democratic primary in Boston's 8th District, the enormous Kennedy family threw an enormous party.

Eunice, the middlest of the middle children, was the driving force behind the idea: a huge formal reception at the Commodore Hotel in Cambridge, with engraved invitations sent to female voters, plans for ballroom dancing, and tuxedos required. The party was the crown jewel after a series of house parties Eunice and Pat had coordinated during the campaign to bring the family in direct contact with voters. The sisters oversaw every detail, even providing the cookies, silver, flowers, coffee cups and saucers.

The party plans were ridiculed by some of Boston's old politicos, as well as some of Jack's staff, who thought the event a pretentious dress-up ball that would leave the Kennedys a laughingstock if it didn't draw a crowd. But decades before she was the wife of a Democratic vice presidential nominee and mother of California's first lady, Eunice was often praised by her father as having one of the best political instincts in her generation of Kennedys, a generation that, with her death and Ted's grave condition, is fast fading into history. Others in Eunice's generation had milestones that were encyclopedia-worthy, but her service began with that ball, when the campaign tapped into a desire among Boston's Irish immigrants for a leader who showed them the heights to which they might climb.

By all accounts, she staged a glorious success. At least 1,500 women came in their finest, though many of the floor-length dresses were rented. The homage-paying guests queued up for a receiving line a block long, and hundreds of other women unable to get into the ballroom right away thronged in the streets, hoping to get a glimpse of the family.

The ball marked the moment when the Kennedys realized they could market themselves as a middle-class fantasy of American royalty. Jack's campaign offered not just a political candidate but a kind of pop-culture aristocracy that average Bostonians could join. In one glamorous evening, the family had harnessed an immigrant city's aspirations and imagination.

This generation of Kennedys -- Joe Jr., John, Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia, Bobby, Jean and Ted -- went on to become America's royal family, not just Boston's. Eunice and her ball, Jack and his campaigns for Congress, the Senate and then the presidency, all the brothers and sisters and their dedication to public service embodied the American dream in upward motion and social progress, involving all those who participated in a contagious optimism about their improving future.

Ted and Jean survive the seven other Kennedy brothers and sisters from that towering generation, and Ted is suffering from a deadly brain tumor that has kept him from the Senate most of the year. As their generation dwindles, a six-decade chapter in America's political and cultural history is coming to a close, posing the question: Is the Kennedy story ending as a public saga? If it isn't, who will carry the torch now?

Dinnertime Dynasty

The House of Kennedy was formed at the dinner table. The matriarch, Rose, posted news items on a bulletin board in the kitchen before dinner, and her children were expected to bone up so they could contribute to the conversation. One family friend remembers a map on the dining room wall that Joe Kennedy would unfurl to make geopolitical points to his children. Mealtime was lesson time, and the nine siblings all defined their roles within the family hierarchy. It was also where their competitive instincts were sharpened, their rivalries worked out and the ties that bound them were tightened nightly.

Charles Spalding, a friend of John's, summed up the nine this way: "You watched these people go through their lives and just had a feeling that they existed outside the usual laws of nature; that there was no other group so handsome, so engaged. There was endless action . . . endless talk . . . endless competition. . . . It was as simple as this: The Kennedys had a feeling of being heightened, and it rubbed off on people who came into contact with them."

Seventeen years separated Joe Jr., the oldest, from Teddy, the youngest, and the sheer number of children required two tables at dinnertime -- one for the older children, one for the younger. Eunice was the swing child -- sometimes she ate at the little table, sometimes at the big. She became a kind of fulcrum for the family, swinging back and forth between older and younger, boys and girls. She was at home in either sub-tribe, equally proficient with dolls and dress-up as with tennis and sailing.

The Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port, Mass., faces the sea rather than the village, creating a private Kennedy peninsula on Nantucket Sound, walled off from the world by a 10-foot hedge. The cluster of clapboard houses in Hyannis Port itself is more of an outpost than a town, and Joe Kennedy wanted it that way. His compound was a training ground for competition against the Brahmin world that he felt had shunned him. The millionaire businessman, film producer and former bootlegger was once turned down for a country club membership and never forgot it.

"The big thing we learned from Daddy: Win, don't come in second or third, that doesn't count, but win, win, win," Eunice once told a writer.

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