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A Sad Familiarity
Legacy of Untimely Death Continues
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 2, 1998;
There was a terrible familiarity about the death of Michael Kennedy on a ski slope in Aspen on New Year's Eve, a tragic ending to a difficult year for a family now defined almost as much by suffering and scandal as by its accomplishments.
Michael Kennedy's death on a mountainside at age 39 is but the latest in what has been a decades-long roster of pain and anguish for the Kennedys, a list that includes two assassinations, one death in combat in World War II, another by a drug overdose in 1984, and a celebrated rape trial that ended in acquittal.
Throughout, the Kennedys have carried on a commitment to public service that has helped make them the closest thing this country has had to a royal family, one whose triumphs and tragedies have made them larger than life to ordinary Americans.
"They've had more power, more money, more tragedy, more adversity," historian Michael Beschloss said yesterday. "Almost on a Shakespearean level. . . . There is just an uncanny amount of tragedy in this family."
Then came publication of Seymour Hersh's "The Dark Side of Camelot," a bark-off portrait of the sexual and other peccadilloes of President John F. Kennedy. Then in the waning hours of the year, Michael slammed into a tree while skiing in Aspen with other members of his family and was pronounced dead shortly afterward in the hospital.
"Those of us who knew Michael and worked with Michael feel not only terrible about his loss, but the fact that he's likely to be remembered not very much for the things that he did that were really quite extraordinary," said Robert Shrum, a Democratic political consultant who worked for Michael's uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "There was a lot of talent and a lot of caring. That's not going to be remembered as I believe it should be."
The reactions to Michael Kennedy's death yesterday were almost universal in pointing out how much suffering the Kennedys have endured over the years. "I don't know anyone who can match the sort of continuum of sadness this family has had," Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said. "And maybe that's the price you pay for great glories."
"Even as a keen critic, you want to bury your face in your hands and shake your head," said Kevin Sowyrda, a Republican political analyst in Massachusetts. "We don't know what to make of another Kennedy death. We almost expect it now."
Later came the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 in Dallas. Five years after that, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles moments after accepting victory in the California Democratic presidential primary.
The following year, their brother the senator, Edward, drove his car off a narrow bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. He survived, but his aide Mary Jo Kopechne was killed.
The 1980s and 1990s brought new problems to a new generation of Kennedys. Robert Kennedy's son David died of a drug overdose in 1984. William Kennedy Smith was charged with rape at the family home in Palm Beach, Fla., but was acquitted by a jury in 1991. Then last spring came reports about Michael's prior relationship with a teenage babysitter.
He was the middle of 11 children and was only 10 years old when his father was assassinated in 1968. He worked with his brother Joe at a nonprofit energy company in Massachusetts and helped establish Stop Handgun Violence. In 1994 he managed his uncle's reelection campaign in what became the most challenging race of Edward Kennedy's career. Michael also wrestled with alcoholism and sexual addiction.
"He was smart, focused and had a real energy and intensity to him," said Charlie Baker, a Democratic political consultant who was a friend of Michael's. "He had a real commitment, a real love and respect for public service."
"They have an overwhelming sense of a continuing commitment to public service, through all the trials and tribulations of their lives," said Thaelia Tsongas Schlesinger, a Massachusetts Democrat and sister of the late senator Paul Tsongas. "Their family brought a lot of us into this arena. They set a standard and they continue to do that in many ways."
Historian Beschloss said that, for a new generation of Americans that barely remembers John or Robert Kennedy, the personal problems of the younger Kennedys have done as much to define the family's image as their public contributions.
From an outsize version of the Camelot mystique of the 1960s has come a different image in the late 1990s. "The currency is devalued from what it was in the 1960s," Beschloss said.
Yet Michael Kennedy's death is a reminder that tragedy continues to stalk this privileged family.
Shrum said the events of so many years have bred "a certain stoic quality" into the family that has helped it carry on in the face of so many problems. Said Massachusetts Democratic consultant Mary Anne Marsh, "It's more than you would expect any family to bear."
Special correspondent Pamela Ferdinand in Boston contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company