The Faces of a 'Royal' Generation Fade Into History

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.

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.

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.

"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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