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Future of Kennedy Family Legacy Unclear After Senator's Death

By Vince Bzdek
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009 10:17 PM

Editor's Note: This is an updated version of an article that was published Aug. 12. It has been revised to reflect Sen. Edward Kennedy's death.

Exactly one year ago, Ted Kennedy was waiting impatiently in a hospital bed in Denver to find out if doctors would allow him to give a surprise speech at the Democratic National Convention. It was just two hours to showtime, and Ted, who had endured a summer of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, "just wasn't feeling well," according to his niece Caroline Kennedy.

Ted had secretly flown across the country to be at the convention, only to be laid low upon arrival by a sudden onset of kidney stones. Doctors, family members and friends had counseled him not to make the trip, fearing just such a complication, but "there was nothing that was going to keep him away," Caroline said at the time.

Kennedy finally told his wife, Vicki, that he was going to give the speech regardless of what doctors said. He rested in bed until the last possible moment, then got up and took an ambulance to the Pepsi Center, where the Democrats had convened.

Shuffling onto the stage, Kennedy delivered a rousing valedictory that day, one that had the crowd on its feet, applauding every sentence.

Summoning the optimism, idealism and dedication to public service that his family has long stood for, he reminded his audience that, when his brother John called of going to the moon, he didn't say it was too far to get there. "This is what we do," Ted roared. "We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I know it. I've seen it. I've lived it. And we can do it again."

He concluded with an echo of his signature phrase, first uttered 28 years earlier at another Democratic convention: "The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on."

"It kind of felt like this grand finale," his son Patrick said in an interview. "He wanted to . . . demonstrate that this was another epic moment in the history of the country, when there was a real passing of the torch to a new generation."

But it was a different kind of ending for many of those who have been affected by the Kennedys during the 60 years they have reigned as America's royal family. This ending was tinged with sadness, as so many Kennedy endings are, but it was also undergirded by a satisfying sense of completion. Finally, it seemed, the life of one of the sons of Camelot had not been cut short.

With the passing of Ted and Eunice, now only one sister, Jean, survives the eight other brothers and sisters from that towering generation. As their time passes, 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. Teddy was the baby of the family, pampered by his mother and sisters, always bringing smiles to those around him. "Teddy was like the sunshine," the family's nurse once said, "lighting up everything in sight." "He always seemed to be laughing," his sister Eunice said. "He was just constantly cheerful."

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, Ted's nearly fatal airplane crash, 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 persevered through its grief, thanks in large part to Ted's perseverance. He was the only son of Camelot to live past age 50.

Ted and the other surviving Kennedys pushed past personal or family misfortune and often 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 Northern 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 served longer than any of them, 47 years in the Senate, and accumulated 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 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 chief executive 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,' " Patrick said. 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 Rodham 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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