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

NEW YORK — Patrick Kennedy, son of Sen. Ted Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, remembers being a young Rhode Island state legislator about 30 years ago and hearing encouraging words from the from the leader of the opposition at the time.

“I just want you to know that whatever 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, ‘Don’t 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 President Kennedy’s assassination, a seismic national event that predates most American lives but remains an inflection point in the country’s history – as a source of modern conspiracy theories, as a debate over what JFK could have achieved. , as an emotional cornerstone of the Kennedy story.

This anniversary comes at an unusual time for the Kennedys. It’s a moment when the family’s mission to preserve a legacy of public service and lofty ideals competes for attention with the presidential bid of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose anti-vaccine advocacy and inflammatory comments on everything from the Holocaust to the pandemic have led to a rare public family breakdown.

Robert’s sister, Kerry Kennedy, spoke of her differences with him “on many issues,” while Jack Schlossberg, President Kennedy’s grandson, called Robert’s candidacy “embarrassing.”

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


The current importance of Robert Kennedy Jr. – what Patrick hopes is a footnote in a larger narrative – stands out not simply by what he says and how it deviates from the family history. This stands out because he is the rare Kennedy engaged in national electoral politics these days.

For generations, the Kennedy dynasty ranked among the Adamses, the Roosevelts and the Bushes. Their tenure in public service dates back to the 1890s, with Representative (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 presidency from 1960 to 1963, governing was decidedly 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. The 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 memory of his administration as a lost golden age, “Camelot,” intensified feelings for the family and the desire for their presence. Ted Kennedy became a liberal voice and revered legislator, while Shriver was chosen as George McGovern’s running mate during their unsuccessful 1972 presidential campaign.

Patrick Kennedy was an eight-term congressman from Rhode Island; Joseph Kennedy II, Robert’s son, served six terms as a congressman from Massachusetts; and Joseph’s sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, served as lieutenant governor of Maryland for two terms. Arnold Schwarzenegger, then married to JFK’s niece Maria Shriver, served as governor of California for two terms.

But the Kennedys have mostly retired from 21st-century electoral politics; no Kennedy or his in-laws currently serve in Congress or as governor. Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter and only surviving child, was open in 2009 to replacing Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate after Clinton was named secretary of state by President Barack Obama. She quickly backed down when New York Governor David Paterson would not choose her. He did not do it.

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

Patrick Kennedy, who left Congress in 2011 while battling drug addiction and bipolar disorder, acknowledges that today’s political atmosphere is a far cry from the 1960s, when leaders such as JFK felt like a ” common objective “. goes on to note that his wife, Amy, ran for Congress in 2020 – unsuccessfully.

“When we went out there and campaigned, it was very inspiring,” says Patrick Kennedy. “There were tons of people on the ground who were so inspiring – to see how they were so passionate about changing the world.”


The Kennedy administration endures today more in his mind than in his memories. 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 90 years old and rarely comments publicly.

Beginning in 1968, after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Ted Kennedy served as the family’s standard bearer and chosen speaker. But no one has succeeded him since his death in 2009. The death of Caroline’s brother, John F. Kennedy Jr., in a plane crash in 1999 ended the life of the most prominent member of his family, the one we talk about the most as a possible presidential candidate. . Caroline Kennedy kept a low profile as ambassador to Japan under the Obama administration and ambassador to Australia under the Biden administration.

“It’s a huge responsibility and a huge yoke around your neck to try to carry that,” Patrick Kennedy says of his father’s stature. “And Dad really did – he really kept it together.” But it cost him an incredible personal toll.

When asked if he would have liked to take on his father’s role, Kennedy said no: “That chapter is closed.” »

In the absence of any old-fashioned family elders, the most talked about Kennedy is RFK Jr., who has attracted a larger number of supporters than most independent candidates. Historian Julian E. Zelizer, author of numerous works on contemporary politics, considers JFK and his brother Robert as “unifying figures” while viewing Robert Jr. as a symbol of “division, distrust and a kind of skepticism toward public culture.”

Patrick Kennedy, who otherwise declined to discuss his cousin at length, called Zelizer’s comments “a pretty fair statement.” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. did not immediately respond to requests for comment but released a statement on the birthday and his uncle’s legacy.

“During his tenure, he championed a vision of America as a nation of peace, a vision that was abandoned after his death,” said Kennedy, who promised to “put us back on the path to peace”.

Other family members remain active in various causes, although in less publicized ways than during the JFK era.

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

Patrick Kennedy is founder of the mental health advocacy group Alignment for Progress and notes that the last bill JFK signed, the Community Mental Health Act, is “the foundation of a modern movement to restore a community approach to our Mental Health “. and addiction crisis.

Timothy Shriver chairs the Board of Directors of the Special Olympics, which his mother (and President Kennedy’s sister), Eunice Shriver, helped create in the 1960s. Kerry Kennedy, Robert’s daughter, is a rights lawyer who runs the non-profit organization RFK Human Rights. Kerry’s sister, Rory Kennedy, is an award-winning documentarian whose subjects range from the Mississippi countryside and the Iraq War to a film about her mother, Ethel.

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

“I can literally go through my entire family and there isn’t one that isn’t doing something,” says Patrick Kennedy, who finds his name still very influential in his current work. “I have been out of office since 2011, and I can ask anyone to call me back.

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