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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.

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But Brown University's Schiller, an expert on Congress, suggests a different view. "Why would you even want to step into those shoes, let alone fill them?" she asked. The strong commitment to public service persists in the next generation, she believes, without always involving a run for office.

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"The Kennedys right now are really doing a lot of things outside the public sector that are having an impact," Schiller said. "They are reshaping and redrawing the Kennedy legacy in new ways, and expanding it."

"It's the same spirit in different forms," said former senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, one of John Kennedy's closest aides and a founding father of the Peace Corps.

"Eunice is a perfect example of the power of public service outside of public office," Schiller said. Eunice has pushed the next generation of Kennedys to be as competitive about public service as they were about touch football.

Every one of Eunice's five children is active in public service. Maria is first lady of California; Robert sits on the Santa Monica City Council and runs a company dedicated to philanthropy; Anthony Paul founded Best Buddies International, an organization that helps people with intellectual disabilities; Timothy is chairman and CEO of Special Olympics; and Mark manages U.S. programs for Save the Children.

Ted's son Patrick, a representative from Rhode Island, has taken the fight for the dispossessed into a new realm: the mentally ill. He has decided that fighting discrimination against people with depression, schizophrenia and substance-abuse issues is every bit as important as the first civil rights battles his dad and uncles fought for African Americans.

"It's not like I went to my dad and said, 'I want to run for Congress because I want to continue our civil rights legacy by taking up the issue of mental illness,' " said Patrick. But his own struggles with bipolar disorder and substance abuse made him more acutely aware of the need to champion the rights of those with mental illness.

Ted's other son, Teddy Jr., who lost a leg to cancer when he was 12, has been a lifelong advocate for the disabled.

Bobby Jr., Robert's third child, heads an alliance of environmental groups that keep watch over the cleanliness of rivers, bays and lakes. Over the years his political activism on environmental issues has occasionally landed him in prison.

"We have to understand that this country is more than just a place where people can come and make their pile bigger and whoever dies with the most stuff wins," Bobby Jr. said in a recent speech. "America means more than that."

JFK's daughter, Caroline, cut short her own effort to win an appointment to fill Hillary Clinton's New York Senate seat, but Caroline continues her philanthropic work for New York City's public schools. She has tried to continue her father's legacy in the books she has written as well, including "Profiles in Courage for Our Time."

Before he could clarify his own political ambitions, her brother, John Jr., launched George magazine to bring a new audience into the discussion of politics and popular culture.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend served two terms as Maryland's lieutenant governor before her failed run for the state's top elective office.

Kerry Kennedy -- the seventh of Bobby's children -- is the founder of the human rights organization Speak Truth to Power, which awards what she describes as the "the poor man's Pulitzers" to authors and journalists around the world who stand up to oppression.

Rory Kennedy, Bobby's youngest child, is a documentary filmmaker whose movies highlight pressing social issues, such as AIDS and poverty in Appalachia.

There is some talk of another Kennedy running for Senate and vying for a place on the national stage. Political observers in Chicago suggest that Chris Kennedy, president of the Merchandise Mart and eighth child of RFK, is about to throw his hat in the ring for the 2010 race for President Obama's old Senate seat. There may no longer be a Kennedy machine to help him get elected, but if Obama presses his own Illinois operatives into service for Kennedy, he could be a contender.

In the final analysis, the royal-family scrapbooks and Camelot nostalgia may not be the most lasting legacy. A suggestion of what the Kennedys might be most remembered for comes from Bobby, in his best-known speech about the power of one person to effect change. Each Kennedy contributes "a ripple of hope" to the legacy, as he put it, some large, some small, many skirting troubled waters, but all contributing to a current that tries to beat endlessly at oppression and prejudice.

"For all my years in public life, I have believed that America must sail toward the shores of liberty and justice for all," Ted said at Harvard University, after receiving a rare honorary degree there in December. "There is no end to that journey, only the next great voyage. We know the future will outlast all of us, but I believe that all of us will live on in the future we made."


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