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'American royalty': A look into the Kennedy legacy

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 | 3:37 p.m. CDT; updated 5:12 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 26, 2009

BOSTON — Hundreds of photographs line the walls of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum. For the moment, one in particular has captivated a visitor from New Hampshire.

In the black-and-white image, taken in the late 1930s, proud parents Joe and Rose Kennedy march toward the camera, flanked by their nine children, all grinning, arms interlocked, a united front. Teddy, the youngest, is in the center, skipping along as if trying to keep up or, perhaps, pull ahead.

To 50-year-old Shelly Huelsman of Nashua, N.H., this remarkable generation — one that produced a president, of course, but also congressmen and senators, an ambassador and the founder of an international organization for the disabled — was like "a shooting star," but one whose afterglow continues to illuminate and inspire.

"They're a legacy, you know?" Huelsman, who was born the year before JFK's election, says as the wail of sirens and the mournful drone of bagpipes drift in from a neighboring room dedicated to his assassination. "I think even when they're gone, it'll live on for hundreds of years. Don't you?"

One generation. It seems so much more deeply rooted than that, but that's really how little time it took for the Kennedy name to burn itself into the American soul.

Now, with the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., only sister Jean Kennedy Smith, 81, remains from that photograph that embodies such promise — and such pathos. And while Kennedys still occupy places of influence and authority in Washington and beyond, there is a sense that something has passed into history, not to be repeated.

People like Huelsman who come to the gleaming glass and concrete building overlooking the entrance to Boston Harbor aren't mere tourists. They are pilgrims, and this is a shrine — not just to a fallen president, but to the Kennedy family, a clan embraced as "American royalty" even in a nation that prides itself on having shaken off a foreign monarch.

"It certainly is a family that ranks (with), if not outranks, the other families that have been important, like the Adamses and the Roosevelts, particularly," former U.S. Sen. Harris L. Wofford, JFK's special assistant on civil rights and a force behind the creation of the Peace Corps, told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

"You've got the 'ask not what your country can do for you' spirit," he says, referring to the famous call to service in JFK's 1961 inaugural address. "They all were imbued by it."

But with the Kennedys, perhaps more than with any other iconic American family, it can sometimes be difficult to separate the history from the hype, fact from fairy tale.

Where some saw selflessness, others saw self-promotion. What admirers suggest was an attitude of noblesse-oblige — of a family, much blessed, giving back through public service — smacked of a sense of political entitlement to some critics' eyes.

"I think that the bad and the good reports on the Kennedys, the hagiography and the pathography, kind of go hand in hand, right?" said Sean Wilentz, presidential historian and Princeton University professor. "You build them up, and then somebody has to come and knock them down. And it goes back and forth, and back and forth."

Of course, much of the Kennedy mystique is founded on a sense of tragedy and promise unfulfilled. Of the nine children in that photograph, two — John and Robert — were cut down by assassins' bullets, and another pair — Joe Jr. and Kathleen — died in plane crashes (John Jr., JFK's son, also died this way).

But if the Kennedy story has become the stuff of Greek tragedy, there is also a suggestion of Shakespearean irony in how the sometimes flawed offspring of a somewhat unsavory character have come to symbolize idealism and service. In book after book, family patriarch Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr. comes off as equal parts Horatio Alger and Niccolo Machiavelli.

The son of a first-generation Irish Catholic saloonkeeper-turned-Boston-ward-boss, Joe Sr. attended Harvard and married the daughter of famed Boston Mayor John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald. As a young executive with Bethlehem Steel, Kennedy formed a friendship with then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It was a bond that Kennedy, a sometime Hollywood film producer and reputed bootlegger, would later parlay into the chairmanship of the Securities and Exchange Commission and a posting as ambassador to Britain.

Kennedy's own aspirations for higher office were dashed when Americans learned of his overtures toward Adolf Hitler's Germany, but he was already grooming his oldest son and namesake for the White House. When Joe Jr.'s B-24 Liberator exploded over the English coast in August 1944, those hopes were transferred to the second son, Jack.

Riding a wave of praise for his heroics as a Navy officer protecting his men following the sinking of the PT-109, the younger Kennedy won the 1947 election for Massachusetts' 11th congressional district. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1953 and, four years later, won the Pulitzer Prize in biography for his book "Profiles in Courage," a work that many are convinced was largely ghostwritten.

With two generations separating him and his siblings from the Fitzgeralds' roots in Ireland's County Limerick and their Kennedy forebears' ties to County Wexford, JFK's 1960 election was seen as a triumph for the immigrant. For his Roman Catholic father, it was the ultimate finger in the eye to the Boston Brahmins who had snubbed him.

John Kennedy's presidency was one of the shortest. Assessing its legacy means balancing many pluses and minuses — his escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam versus the creation of the Peace Corps; his initial hesitation on civil rights against his resoluteness during the nuclear showdown of the Cuban missile crisis.

"I would not classify him among the greats, along with Lincoln and FDR and so on," but instead "a near great," says historian James MacGregor Burns, author of the book "John Kennedy: A Political Profile."

But Burns says few would question JFK's ability to inspire. When Kennedy beckoned us to follow him to a "New Frontier" and pointed us toward the final frontier of space, legions willingly obeyed.

"He was," said Burns, "a very successful pol."

Photographers, including one brought into the White House by a JFK aide, closely chronicled the first family and the administration that came to be called "Camelot" — and the images took their place in a special album on our mental bookshelf: The young president dancing with his model-gorgeous wife, Jacqueline; little daughter Caroline sailing with her father; John Jr. peeking from a secret compartment under the president's desk.

"The Kennedys rightly dazzled America," journalist Garry Wills observed in his 1981 book, "The Kennedy Imprisonment." ''We thought it was our own light being reflected back on us."

Soon, a new set of images — of a blood-spattered Jackie Kennedy standing beside Vice President Lyndon Johnson as he took the oath to succeed the fallen president, and of little "John-John" bravely saluting his father's flag-draped casket — would further cement the family's place in our hearts.

Not everyone was won over.

Author Gore Vidal, an intimate of John and Jackie Kennedy who was later spurned by the clan, argued the Kennedy mystique was the product of a public relations campaign that reinvented a middling presidency.

In an April 1967 essay for Esquire magazine, Vidal argued that the family machine convinced a "bedazzled nation" that "once upon a time there was indeed a Camelot beside the Potomac, a golden age forever lost unless a second Kennedy should become the president."

When younger brother Bobby Kennedy ran in 1968 and was also assassinated, it confused matters even more, says historian Robert Dallek.

"Jack and Bobby, they were martyrs, and martyrs' reputations live on," says Dallek, author of "An Unfinished Life," a biography of John Kennedy. "And so it's almost as if their achievements have become second to their martyrdom."

Robert Kennedy was a complex figure in a tumultuous time. As JFK's attorney general, he authorized the wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr. And yet on the day in 1968 that King was fatally shot, Kennedy, on a campaign stop in Indianapolis, calmed a black crowd by quoting the Greek tragedian Aeschylus.

"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until," he said, "in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

Democratic presidential contender Eugene McCarthy accused Bobby of running "with the ghost of his brother" and vowed to make the younger Kennedy "run against it." In his famous eulogy for Bobby, Ted Kennedy alluded to his brother's opposition to the war in Vietnam, and to his championship of the poor and marginalized.

"My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life," he told mourners at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. "To be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."

Whether the drive to the White House began out of nobility, ambition or something else, the Kennedy name seemed a heavy burden when the focus turned to the last brother.

Edward Kennedy had limped away from a 1964 plane crash that killed an aide and the pilot. Five years later, his Senate career narrowly survived a car crash that killed 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne following a party on Chappaquiddick Island off Martha's Vineyard.

When Kennedy announced his bid for the presidency in 1979, some felt he was tempting fate and others questioned his motivation. When newsman Roger Mudd asked him on camera why he wanted to be president, Kennedy famously stammered through his response.

Watching the flak-jacketed Teddy slog from caucus to caucus, primary to primary, Wills couldn't shake the feeling that Joe and Rose's son was a prisoner of what others thought was his birthright, his destiny.

"In this campaign, Kennedy was like the last climber in a human chain going up a mountainside, tied to the prowess of the four men above him," Wills wrote. "But then, in rapid succession, all four men fell, and the very strength that had been drawing him upward now hung a dead weight below him. Each time he stirred to go higher, he just slipped back.

"The 'Kennedy legacy' had become a very literal burden, made his life a constant labor with death."

Even Teddy, in the famous news conference to explain why he did not immediately report the Martha's Vineyard wreck, confessed to fears that "some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys."

Though he did not have enough delegates to wrest the nomination from incumbent Jimmy Carter, Kennedy entered the 1980 convention at Madison Square Garden with hopes of staging a coup. When that gambit failed, he conceded.

In defeat, Ted Kennedy soared.

"For all those whose cares have been our concern," he told the convention, "the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

Teddy Kennedy went on to be hailed as the "liberal lion of the Senate." But the dream of a second Kennedy presidency has yet to be realized.

In a strange way, the JFK Library seems a metaphor for the Kennedy clan's place in our collective psyche. Rising from the site of a reclaimed garbage dump, the building's nine-story precast concrete tower juts oceanward like a ship's prow, casting a long shadow.

Through triumphs and scandals, the Kennedy name has maintained its political heft.

When Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Uncle Ted endorsed Barack Obama for president, one British newspaper said it was worth "millions of votes." Commentators dubbed Obama "the first black Kennedy," implying the marriage of style substance.

Now, talk of a family "successor" springs anew.

John Jr.'s 1999 plane crash death extinguished any hope that this second JFK would reach the White House. Caroline abruptly withdrew from consideration for the New York Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the seat Bobby Kennedy once held.

What about Bobby Jr., the environmentalist? Or Teddy's son, U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy? All have active public lives, but none seems eager to take that next step.

New York newspaperman Jimmy Breslin, who famously decided to cover President Kennedy's burial from the perspective of the Arlington Cemetery worker who dug the grave, wonders whether the family can ever regain the heights attained by this passing generation.

"How far can you go if you lose three like that?" Breslin asks. "Jack Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy. And then you lose Teddy, who really matured. What have you got? I don't know."

But to Melissa Huelsman, a Seattle lawyer touring the JFK Library with her Aunt Shelly, this new crop of Kennedys somehow manages to maintain the family's hold on the national imagination while keeping a lower profile.

Sure, the Kennedy name and wealth can get them into Harvard and even carry them into public office. But, for the most part, they appear to be using their privilege for good, she says.

"They seem to be much less trying to grab the limelight," she says. "They're all just kind of getting down to business."

The family business.


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