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60 years after JFK's death, today's Kennedys choose other paths to public service.

Pete Mellor

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Patrick Kennedy, son of Sen. Ted Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, remembers being a young state legislator in Rhode Island some 30 years ago and hearing encouraging words from the opposition leader at the time.  “I just want you to know that no matter what you do, nothing's going to take away from everyone's memory and appreciation of what your family has done for this country," Republican David Dumas told him. “He meant that ’Don't preoccupy yourself with worrying about whether you're a good representative of your family or not,'" Patrick Kennedy, now a former congressman, said in a recent Zoom interview.  Kennedy spoke shortly before the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, a seismic national event that predates most American lives but remains an inflection point in the country's history — as a wellspring of modern conspiracy theories, as a debate over what JFK might have achieved, as an emotional cornerstone of the Kennedy story.  The anniversary arrives at an unusual moment for the Kennedys. It is a moment when the family's mission to uphold a legacy of public service and high ideals competes for attention with the presidential candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose anti-vaccine advocacy and inflammatory comments about everything from the Holocaust to the pandemic have led to a rare public family breach.  Robert's sister, Kerry Kennedy, has cited her differences with him “on many issues,” while Jack Schlossberg, grandson of President Kennedy, has called Robert's candidacy “an embarrassment.”  “We haven't seen this happening before in the Kennedy family,” says historian Thurston Clarke, author of books on President Kennedy and his brother Robert. “In the past," Clarke says, "they were very reluctant to attack each other.”  

For generations, the Kennedy dynasty ranked with the Adams', the Roosevelts and the Bushes. Their time in public office dates to the 1890s, to Rep. (and future Boston Mayor) John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, JFK's grandfather, and grew throughout the first half of the 20th century.  During JFK's 1960-63 presidency, governing was decidedly a family affair. Robert Kennedy was attorney general and the president's closest adviser, brother-in-law Sargent Shriver was heading the newly formed Peace Corps and brother-in-law Stephen Smith was White House chief of staff. Youngest brother Ted Kennedy was elected to John F. Kennedy's former Senate seat in Massachusetts.  The death of President Kennedy, and Jacqueline Kennedy's remembrance of his administration as a lost golden age, “Camelot,” intensified feelings about the family and longings for their presence. Ted Kennedy became a revered liberal voice and legislator, while Shriver was chosen as George McGovern's running mate in their unsuccessful 1972 presidential campaign.  Patrick Kennedy was an eight-term congressman from Rhode Island; Joseph Kennedy II, Robert's son, served 6-terms as a congressman from Massachusetts; and Joseph's sibling Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was a two-term Maryland lieutenant governor. Arnold Schwarzenegger, married at the time to JFK's niece Maria Shriver, was California's governor for two terms.  But the Kennedys have mostly withdrawn from electoral politics in the 21st century; no Kennedy or Kennedy in-law currently serves in Congress or as a governor. Caroline Kennedy, JFK's daughter and only surviving child, had been open in 2009 to replacing Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate after Clinton was appointed secretary of state by President Barack Obama. She soon stepped back amid signs New York Gov. David Paterson would not select her. He didn't.  

The Kennedy administration now lives on in more in spirit than in first hand memory. One of the last prominent White House aides, speechwriter Richard Goodwin, died in 2018. The last of President Kennedy's surviving siblings, former U.S. ambassador to Ireland Jean Smith, died in 2020. Robert F. Kennedy's widow, Ethel, is in her 90s and rarely comments publicly.  Starting in 1968, after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Ted Kennedy was the family's standard bearer and chosen orator. But no one has succeeded him since his death in 2009. The death of Caroline’s brother John F. Kennedy Jr. in a 1999 plane crash ended the life of his generation’s most prominent family member, the one most discussed as a possible presidential candidate. Caroline Kennedy has maintained a low profile as ambassador to Japan during the Obama administration and ambassador to Australia in the Biden administration.  


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