Asked by a reporter how he became a war hero, John Kennedy
replied, â€œIt was involuntary. They sank my boat.â€� Thatâ€™s
the way it was with much of his life. Much that happened was
involuntary, totally unexpected.
He wasnâ€™t supposed to be a hero. Weak and sickly, he received
the last rites from the Catholic church four times during his life. But
when his PT boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, he rallied his
men, dragging one to safety by clenching his life jacket strap in his teeth,
and later swam for hours to secure food and aid.
He wasnâ€™t supposed to be a politician. That was the role of his
older brother Joseph. But when Joseph was killed in World War II,
their father began grooming John. One of his best moves was marrying
Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953. One of his worst was being unfaithful to
her. The couple inspired our generation with their glamour, charm and
He wasnâ€™t supposed to be president. He was the youngest
person elected president and the first born in the 20th century. But he
took on mobsters, prejudice and the Soviet Union.
And he wasnâ€™t supposed to die so young. But he was struck
down by an assassin's bullet at the height of his popularity at the age of
He was a man of contradictions. As his brother Ted said of him on the
20th anniversary of his death, â€œHe was an heir to wealth who felt the
anguish of the poor. He was an orator of excellence who spoke for the
voiceless. He was a son of Harvard who reached out to the sons and
daughters of Appalachia. He was a man of special grace who had a
special care for the retarded and handicapped. . . . He said and proved
in word and deed that one man can make a difference.â€�
'Ask not what your
country can do for
you, but what you
can do for your
--John F. Kennedy
They were the children of Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy, and they
challenged us to do our best, to be our best, to give, to care, to serve and
to live for others. Four members of this remarkable family made vast
contributions to our nationâ€™s history, changing the way we deal with
people who have been marginalized.
Bobby was the conscience of the family, and its most religious
member. He and his wife Ethel were good Catholics, having 11
children. A lawyer with the Justice Department, Bobby resigned in
1952 to manage his brother Johnâ€™s successful campaign for the
Senate from Massachusetts. After making a name for himself as chief
counsel of the Senate Labor Rackets Committee, he left in 1959 to
run Johnâ€™s presidential campaign.
Selected by his brother to serve as Attorney General, Bobby made
use of his extensive experience dealing with organized crime and
became the presidentâ€™s closest advisor. â€œIf I want something
done and done immediately I rely on the Attorney General,â€� John
said. â€œHe is very much the doer in this administration, and has an
organizational gift I have rarely if ever seen surpassed.â€�
Bobby took on organized crime and the Mafia, increasing convictions
by 800 percent during his term. He pursued Teamsters union
President Jimmy Hoffa for financial and electoral corruption.
But mostly, heâ€™s noted for supporting civil rights and economic
opportunity. He helped craft the Civil Rights Act of 1964, bringing an
end to Jim Crow laws in the South. He toured South Africa and
opposed apartheid. He obtained compromises that helped defuse the
Cuban missile crisis, averting nuclear war. And he fought poverty
from New York City to the Mississippi Delta.
Robert ran for president in 1968 on a platform of racial and economic
justice and peace. He had won the California primary and had just
addressed his supporters at the Ambassador Hotel when he, too, was
Ted Kennedy eulogized him as follows: â€œMy brother need not be
idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; 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. As he said many times in many parts of this nation, â€˜Some
men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never
were and say why not.â€™"
Not long after her death in August, Eunice Kennedy Shriverâ€™s
son told of watching school buses pull up at their Maryland home.
They were filled with developmentally disabled children and adults
who set up tents and camped in their yard.
â€œI thought all families did that,â€� he said. Most didn't, but his
family did because his mother, a social worker, spent her life
helping the disabled. A founder of the National Institute of Child
Health and Human Development (NICHD), part of the National
Institutes of Health, she helped start the Special Olympics.
She was active in the political campaigns of brothers. Her
husband, Sargent Shriver, founded the Peace Corps, and their
daughter, Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger, is first lady of California.
In 2002, Eunice received the Theodore Roosevelt Award from the
National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), an award given
to people who letter in varsity athletics and go on to have a national
reputation for outstanding accomplishment. In 2006, she was listed
ninth most-influential individual in the NCAAâ€™s first century.
In 2008, Congress changed the name of the NICHD to the Eunice
Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development. She also received the first Sports Illustrated
Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award.
Her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the
Smithsonian, the first the gallery commissioned of a person who
had not been president or first lady. Painted by David Lenz, it
shows Shriver with Special Olympics athletes against the backdrop
of a rare halo display of the sun.
Upon her death, her family issued a statement that read in part,
â€œInspired by her love of God, her devotion to her family, and
her relentless belief in the dignity and worth of every human life, she
worked without ceasingâ€”searching, pushing, demanding, hoping
for change. . . . Her work transformed the lives of hundreds of
millions of people across the globe, and they in turn are her living
The youngest Kennedy child, Ted was economically privileged, but
raised by demanding, even abusive parents who compared him
unfavorably with his older brothers. He ate and drank too much
and did some irresponsible things, but he lived long enough to
recover his reputation as a generous man who loved life, his family,
his church, his Irish heritage, the Democratic Party, the U.S. Senate
and American politics.
He was influenced by his motherâ€™s father, the colorful and
canny Boston mayor â€œHoney Fitzâ€� Fitzgerald. â€œHis
simple bequest to me has been more precious than any fortune.
Love life, and believe in it,â€� Ted said.
Tragedy came early to his life. His older sister Rosemary was given
a lobotomy that permanently disabled her, his oldest brother Joseph
and his sister Kathleen died in airplane crashes before he was
sixteen. Upon his brothers John and Robertâ€™s deaths, he
became the surrogate father of their 13 children at the age of 36.
He was expelled from Harvard for cheating on a test, discharged
from the Army as a private first class, and charged with reckless
driving and driving without a license. But he finally graduated from
law school. â€œThe disadvantage of my position is being
constantly compared with two brothers of such superior ability,â€�
he said. He may have lacked Johnâ€™s sophistication and Robertâ
€™s intense drive, but he was more expansive and kind-hearted
than either of them.
According to The Boston Globe, â€œTeddy, the baby of the
family, who had grown into a man who could sometimes be
dissolute and reckless, had become the steady, indispensable
patriarch, the one the family turned to in good times and bad.â€�
His life was filled with regretsâ€”what he called his â€œinexcusableâ
€� behavior at Chappaquiddick, when he failed to report the
young woman who drowned when his car went off a narrow
bridge, the heavy drinking that resulted in rape allegations against a
nephew, and the failure of his marriage to first wife Joan. The crash
of a private plane resulted in months of hospitalization for a severe
back injury, a punctured lung, broken ribs and internal bleeding and
led to chronic back pain for the rest of his life.
Called the â€˜Lion of the Senate,â€™ he was elected nine times
and served for 46 years. He championed health care, immigration
reform, civil rights and education. Known for his strong and
effective staff, he gained a reputation for legislative skill, for working
across party lines, and for strategic timing. He worked for the
rights of everyday Americans. â€œNever let the perfect be the
enemy of the good,â€� he said.
Diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, he â€œloved every
single day of his last year,â€� according to his son. He lived long
enough to endorse the first African American President of the
United States and to write, not only his own memoir, but an
account of his family in True Compass. He received an honorary
knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II and the Medal of Freedom
from President Obama.
The Associated Press wrote, â€œUnlike his brothers, Edward M.
Kennedy has grown old in public, his victories, defeats and human
contradictions played out across the decades in the public glare,â
€� but â€œby the early 21st century, the achievements of the
younger brother would be enough to rival those of many presidents,
â€� according to The Boston Globe.
Ted died this August at his home in Hyannis Port, two weeks after
the death of his sister Eunice. He is survived by his wife Victoria
and sister Jean Kennedy Smith, three children and two stepchildren
He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery near the graves of
his brothers. Like his brother Bobby, his body rests under a white
Bobby, Ted and John