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The Kennedys

Vincent Bzdek
Author and News Editor, The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 12, 2009 1:00 PM

Vincent Bzdek, author of "The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby, Ted, and a Family Dream Fulfilled," and news editor at The Washington Post, was online Wednesday, Aug. 12, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the passing of this generation of Kennedys, their contributions and what they mean to the nation.

Read the Article: The Faces of a 'Royal' Generation Fade Into History (Post, Aug. 12)

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Arlington, Va.: This is more of a comment, but in assessing the Kennedys' legacy, I think it important to look outside of the family itself. There are legions of men and women who worked for them, knew them, or were inspired by them and who wish to continue their legacy of commitment to public service. Think about it, an entire family, though not without flaws, committed to building a better life for everyone. I think that's a pretty special thing. Others will take up that cause, and even if the Kennedys are not there, I'm sure their influence will be.

Vincent Bzdek: I think this is a very good point. Many people who worked for the Kennedys or were inspired by the Kennedys at one time or another now hold the levers of power in Washington. Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer used to work for Ted Kennedy, as did Greg Craig, White House general counsel for President Obama. Ken Feinberg used to be Ted's chief of staff and now works for Obama as well. They and hundreds of others of former staffers who represent a living legacy of the Kennedys.

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Arlington, Va.: Is this really a hot political question of our time? Do we really need a royal family that much? I don't understand what everyone's obsession is with the Kennedy family, especially those Gen X and younger. Why should we even care if there are no more Kennedys in a high public office?

I'm sure the family has done great things, but they are also very rich and famous and the later generations have had the Kennedy name to open many doors for them. (Would you even remember Kathleen "Kennedy" Townsend if she left out her maiden name?)

I really don't understand the point of articles like this; it's just pure nostalgia.

Vincent Bzdek: The glow of the Kennedys has definitely faded, but I think now is a good time to look back and take the full measure of their impact on the country. It's a good time to ask how they have influenced our lives in concrete ways, not just through the country's infatuation with the family's tragedies and celebrity.

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Bennett Point, Md.: Do you find it interesting that Eunice was the last Kennedy to be Catholic in any meaningful way?

Vincent Bzdek: I do find it interesting. Sargent Shriver, Eunice's husband, was much more Catholic than many of the Kennedys were. He used to carry rosary beads with him on the campaign trail. I think his strong faith, and Eunice's strong faith, translated into a strong household with a clear moral center. It's no surprise that many Kennedy watchers feel like the Shriver children had a leg up on other members of the clan because of their storng parenting.

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Philadelphia. Pa.: I know the legacy is fading. Yet should we also note the positive impacts that some are having, such as Robert Kennedy Jr. on environmental issues and Mark Shriver on children's issues?

Vincent Bzdek: The thing that struck me most when I was researching a book on the Kennedy legacy was Ted Kennedy's legislative legacy. He's cast more than 15,000 votes and written more than 2500 bills. His fingerprints are on most of the major social programs that have been launched in the last 40 years. His legacy rivals that of many presidents, and has impacted real lives much more than the legacies of his brothers.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: The Kennedy's have done some wonderous things throughout the course of their lives however it must be said they've benefited far more than the unwashed masses as a result of their call to action.

In plain English, the Kennedy's are motivated by personal gain which often translates into dollars and cents.

Too harsh?

Perhaps, but true nontheless. Financial fortunes amassed through many dubious means.

They're treated like royalty yet behave no better than the rest of the animals in the barnyard.

Affairs, ill gotten gains, out and out criminal behavior to name a few.

Hero worship for the sake of hero worship is outdated -- just as the Camelot story is no longer relevant.

Enough with the Kennedys.

Vincent Bzdek: During a debate, Mitt Romney, when he was challenging Ted Kennedy for his Senate seat in the 1990s, accused the Kennedy family of profiting on a land deal, and Kennedy responded: "Mr. Romney, the Kennedys are not in public service to make money. We have paid too high a price."

To answer your question, I'm not sure the Kennedys are treated much like royalty anymore. Witness the drubbing Caroline received in the press when she threw her hat in the ring for the New York Sneate appointment. The bloom has been off the dynasty for a while, I think. What's fascinating to me now is to sift out the real contributions from the chaff of low melodrama. They've certainly given us both.

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washingtonpost.com: The Faces of a 'Royal' Generation Fade Into History (Post, Aug. 12)

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Lyme, Conn.: People forget what an amazing time America had during the Kennedy years. The Kennedy economic team helped produce an economy that was around 1 percent inflation and 3 percent unemployment. We had worries about the Cold War, Russia, Viet Nam and Cuba but we were not at war anywhere.

It just seems sad to me that after Kennedy died, we had Viet Nam, Watergate, our loss of our manufacturing greatness, and things have all changed. Not that one expects things to remain the same. Yet, wasn't there indeed some truth to the good feeling of "Camelot" because things relatively were so good for most Americans?

Vincent Bzdek: After Bobby was killed, Walter Mondale said, "I don't think we'll ever be the same." I think we do look back with nostalgia at those times, but one of the reasons we do is because of the assassinations. John Kennedy will forever be remembered as the young dashing scion of Camelot in part because he was never able to grow old. Because of his death, and Bobby's, our view of their times has been romanticized, I think.

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Washington, D.C.: I suggest that Eunice Shriver stands a excellent chance of achieving sainthood -- literally. She would seem to have everything going for her. What do you think?

Vincent Bzdek: I do think Eunice's life and career have been exemplary. Sainthood usually requires some proof of a miracle performed, and I'm not sure Eunice's accomplishments quite reach that level. I do hope her lifelong goodwill and advocacy of children with special needs will be recognized in some significant way.

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New York, N.Y.: How big a role did Eunice play in her husband's vice presidential campiagn in 1972 and his presidential campaign in 1976 -- and how hurt was she by his defeats?

Vincent Bzdek: Eunice campaigned right alongside her husband, and helped orchestrate the campaigning of other Kennedy family members. I'm not sure Eunice ever looked upon the campaigns as defeats. It was all service to her. Sargent Shriver had already helped found the Peace Corps, Headstart, Vista, the Job Corps and headed up Presidnet Johnson's War on Poverty by the time he ran for office.His record of accomplishment was already so extensive I'm not sure those losses diminished the family's commitment to service much at all.

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Washington, D.C.: Has Maria Shriver said anything in the press about her mother's passing? And does her father Sargent have Alzheimer's?

Vincent Bzdek: Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger were at Eunice's bedside shortly before Eunice passed away, but I have not seen any public comment from her yet. I'm sure there will be eventually, but it's all about the family right now. Sargent Shriver does have Alzheimer's, and is not in terrific health.

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Fairfax, Va.: What are the other Kennedy/Shriver kids doing now (besides Maria)?

Vincent Bzdek: Every one of Eunice's five children are active in public service. Maria Shriver, of course, is first lady of California; Robert Shriver 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 Shriver is chairman and CEO of Special Olympics; and Mark Shriver manages U.S. programs for Save the Children.

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Washington, D.C.: Eunice's sister was given a lobotomy, I heard, which left her mentally disabled. Why did the family consent to the operation? I don't understand why such a prominent, well-connected family would take such a risk.

Vincent Bzdek: Rosemary may have been mentally retarded or had a mental illness, such as severe depression. At the time many families tried to hide away such things. As Rosemary got older, her mood swings worsened and she began to throw tantrums and violent rages. Science at the time was lauding lobotomies as a way to cure mood disorders, and there is some evidence Joe believed the procedure might cure Rosemary. It made her much worse of course, incapacitating her for the rest of her life. Joe reportedly made the decision without consulting Rose. He may have simply been unable to accept a child that was not superhuman like the rest of his clan.

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Richmond, Va: As member of the first class of baby boomers (Birth year 1946) I came to young adulthood as the Kennedy family was reaching its peak in influence in American society. I was brought up in a home with strong religious and moral values, not the least of which was "do unto others as you would have them to unto you." My observation is that the children of the baby boomers have had such affluency that the ambition that has been taught has been around individual achievement and monetary gain rather than achieving a better world for all. That has also been exemplified in our political process as we have watched the change of philosphy through the years in Washington. So to say that the bloom is off the rose as far as the Kennedy family is concerned is only to say the bloom is off the rose in our entire society.

Vincent Bzdek: I think you are right that the Kennedys represented a commitment to service above self, and a commitment to the common good that kind of got lost over the years. But I wonder if we're not seeing a return to that spirit. Volunteerism was way up in the last year, resumes have been flooding Washington from people interested in public service again, and the last political campaign engaged hundreds of thousands of young people in a new kind of public service. I can't help but wonder if that Kennedy spirit has been resparked again.

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Annapolis, Md.: Is there a comparable family out there that is in the Kennedy mold?

Vincent Bzdek: Culturally and politically, I'm just not sure there is.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: While you are obviously infatuated and enamored with the Kennedys, do you acknowledge that any aspect of the Kennedy legacy is not glorious, awe-inspiring and wonderful for America? Also, does your book cover how the Kennedys treated Rosemary?

Vincent Bzdek: There is a very dark side to the Kennedy family that I think makes them much more interesting and human. What fascinates me is that paradox of how they were able to achieve what they achieved in the midst of such tragedy and downright tawdriness. But book tries to get at both, and contains a very painful scene describing the horror of Rosemary's lobotomy.

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Vincent Bzdek: Thanks very much for all your questions concerning the Kennedys. I have to sign off now and go back to my day job, but I just wanted to say I greatly appreciate all your insights and comments. Cheers.

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