60 years after JFK’s death, the Kennedys are today choosing other paths of public service

NEW YORK (AP) — Patrick Kennedy, the senator’s son. Ted Kennedy, nephew of President John F. Kennedy, remembers being a young legislator in Rhode Island about 30 years ago and hearing encouraging words from the leader of the opposition at the time.

“I just want you to know that no matter what you do, nothing will take away from everyone’s memory and appreciation of what your family did for this country,” Republican David Dumas told him.

“He meant that you don’t have to worry about whether or not you’re a good representative of your family,” 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 Americans’ lives but remains an inflection point in the country’s history — both as a wellspring of modern conspiracy theories, and as a debate about what JFK might have accomplished. As the emotional cornerstone of the Kennedy story.

The anniversary comes at an unusual moment for the Kennedy family. It’s a moment when the family’s mission of upholding a legacy of public service and high ideals is vying for attention with the presidential candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose anti-vaccine defenses and inflammatory comments on everything from the Holocaust to the pandemic led to a rare public family breach.

Robert’s sister, Kerry Kennedy, noted her disagreements with him “on many issues,” while Jack Schlossberg, President Kennedy’s grandson, called Robert’s nomination “an embarrassment.”

“We’ve never seen this happen before in the Kennedy family,” says historian Thurston Clark, author of books about President Kennedy and his brother Robert. “In the past, they were very reluctant to attack each other,” Clark says.

A long tradition in the public eye

Robert Kennedy Jr.’s current fame — which Patrick expects will be a footnote to a larger narrative — stands out not just because of what he says and how he departs from family history. He stands out because he is the rare Kennedy involved these days in national electoral politics.

For generations, the Kennedys were on a par with the Addamses, Roosevelts, and Bushes. Their presence in public office dates back to the 1890s, to Rep. (and future Boston Mayor) John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, JFK’s grandfather, and grew up throughout the first half of the 20th century.

During JFK’s presidency from 1960 to 1963, governing was certainly a family affair. Robert Kennedy was Attorney General and the president’s closest advisor, his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver headed the newly formed Peace Corps and his brother-in-law Stephen Smith was White House chief of staff. Younger brother Ted Kennedy was elected to John F. Kennedy’s former Massachusetts Senate seat.

The death of President Kennedy, and Jacqueline Kennedy’s remembering of his administration as a lost golden age, “Camelot,” intensified feelings for the family and longing for their existence. Ted Kennedy became a respected 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. Joseph’s brother Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was Lieutenant Governor of Maryland for two terms. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who at the time was married to JFK’s niece Maria Shriver, was a two-term governor of California.

But the Kennedy family has mostly withdrawn from electoral politics in the 21st century; Neither Kennedy nor Kennedy relatives currently serve in Congress or as governor. Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter and only surviving child, was open in 2009 to replace Hillary Clinton in the US Senate after Clinton was appointed Secretary of State by President Barack Obama. It quickly declined amid signals from the New York governor. David Patterson wouldn’t choose it. he did not do.

“Given what happened to their father and uncle, and given the difficult road Ted Kennedy had to travel, who can blame them for finding another way?” says historian Sean Wilentz. He says the assassinations of JFK and Robert Kennedy may have created “too great a burden on the next generation to continue and complete what remains unfinished.”

Patrick Kennedy, who left Congress in 2011 amid struggles with substance abuse and bipolar disorder, agrees that the current political climate is a far cry from the 1960s, when leaders like JFK had a sense of “common purpose.” But he still believes public office is worth pursuing and points out that his wife, Amy, ran for Congress in 2020 — unsuccessfully.

“When we got out and campaigned, it was very inspiring,” Patrick Kennedy says. “There were so many people at the grassroots who were so inspiring – to see how passionate they were about changing the world.”

Management remembers the soul

The Kennedy administration now lives on more in spirit than in immediate memory. One of the last prominent White House aides, speechwriter Richard Goodwin, died in 2018. The last surviving sibling of President Kennedy, former US ambassador to Ireland Jean Smith, died in 2020. Robert Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, died in the 1990s Her age. He rarely comments publicly.

Beginning in 1968, after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Ted Kennedy became 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 career of the most prominent member of his family of his generation, and the person most discussed as a potential presidential candidate. Caroline Kennedy has maintained a low profile as ambassador to Japan during the Obama administration and as ambassador to Australia in the Biden administration.

“It’s a terrible responsibility and a great yoke around your neck to try to carry it,” Patrick Kennedy says of his father’s status. “And my dad really did it — he really kept it together. But it was an incredibly personal loss for him.”

When asked if he would like to take over his father’s role, Kennedy said no: “That chapter has been closed.”

In the absence of any old-fashioned family elders, the most talked-about Kennedy is RFK Jr., who has attracted a larger following than most independent candidates. Historian Julian Zelizer, author of numerous works on contemporary politics, sees JFK and his brother Robert as “unifying figures” while finds Robert Jr. a symbol of “divisiveness and mistrust and a kind of suspicion about the general culture.”

Patrick Kennedy, who declined to discuss his cousin at length, called Zelizer’s comments “a very fair statement.” Robert F. kennedy jr He did not immediately respond to requests for comment but issued a statement regarding the anniversary and his uncle’s legacy.

“During his time in office, he upheld the vision of America as a nation of peace, a vision that was abandoned after his death,” said Kennedy, who promised to “return the United States to the path of peace.”

Other family members remain active in various causes, although in a less high-profile way than in JFK’s time.

Besides Caroline, several Kennedy family members hold positions in the Biden administration, including Joseph Kennedy III, grandson of Robert Kennedy, who is the special envoy to Northern Ireland; and Victoria Reggie Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s widow and now ambassador to Austria.

Patrick Kennedy is the founder of the mental health advocacy group Align to advance He notes that the recent bill signed by JFK, the Community Mental Health Act, is “the foundation of a modern-day movement to restore a community-based approach to our mental health and addiction crisis.”

Timothy Shriver chairs the board of directors Special Olympics, Which his mother (and President Kennedy’s sister) Eunice Shriver helped found in the 1960s. Kerry Kennedy, Robert’s daughter, is a human rights lawyer and heads the non-profit organization RFK Human Rights. Kerry’s sister Rory Kennedy is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose topics have ranged from rural Mississippi and the Iraq War to a film about her mother, Ethel.

“There are many other ways to serve the public other than running for elective office,” says political analyst Larry Sabato. “No one can say that the Kennedy family did not make many contributions to public life — and sacrifices, too.”

“I can go through all my family, and there’s no one who isn’t doing something,” says Patrick Kennedy, who finds his name still a major influence in his current work. “I’ve been out of the office since 2011, and I can get anyone to take my call.”

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