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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.

Joe drove the siblings hard, especially the boys. Ted called him not so much a prodding father but a "blowtorch," and Joe once boasted to friends, when his boys were still children, that they all would run for president one day. Three of them did.

Grief and Greatness

High hopes can lead to long drops, of course, and consequently the famous siblings have involved the country deeply in their later tragedies as well -- John's assassination, Bobby's assassination, Chappaquiddick, John Jr.'s airplane crash and a host of substance abuse calamities and marital melodramas.

Clare Boothe Luce, a celebrated journalist and playwright, came away with a particularly memorable impression of the Kennedy brothers and sisters. "Where else but in Gothic fiction," she once wrote, "where else among real people could one encounter such triumphs and tragedies, such beauty and charm and ambition and pride and human wreckage, such dedication to the best and lapses into the mire of life; such vulgar, noble, driven, generous, self-centered, loving, suspicious, devious, honorable, vulnerable, indomitable people?"

Somehow, though, the family's legacy of public service has persevered through its grief. The Kennedys have pushed past personal or family misfortune and turned their troubles into political causes. That call to purpose will likely endure as the siblings' most important legacy, more so even than their political victories or personal tragedies.

Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University who has studied the Kennedys closely, thinks that commitment to service sprang from Rose's devotion to the Catholic Church.

"There's a strong sense of charity in the Catholic faith, that you have a moral obligation to serve others," Schiller said.

Joe Jr. died serving his country as a World War II pilot. John served as congressman, senator and president and reviver of the country's spirit. Eunice served as founder of the Special Olympics and lifelong advocate for children with special needs, inspired by her older sister Rosemary's developmental problems. Jean served as ambassador to Ireland, helping broker the peace agreement between England and Northen Ireland. Bobby served as U.S. attorney general, senator from New York and populist presidential candidate. Patricia founded the National Committee for the Literary Arts, even when distracted by life as a Hollywood wife.

Ted has served longer than any of them, 47 years in the Senate, accumulating a legislative record that rivals any in the history of the chamber.

Bob Shrum, whose political career started with Jack's and Bobby's campaigns, and who later wrote speeches for Ted, said: "JFK inspired me the way he inspired a whole generation of people. The call to purpose, the sense of idealism. The sense that you could actually make a difference, and that government had to be there for people who couldn't necessarily fend for themselves."

A young Peace Corps volunteer summed up the appeal of that call way back in 1962: "I'd never done anything political, patriotic or unselfish because nobody asked me to. Kennedy asked."

The Next Generation

Who will carry the Kennedy torch of public service now?

"I think it's over," said former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, a close friend of Jack Kennedy's. "I don't think there are any left" in the next generation of Kennedys whose work can compare with their parents' generation.

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