• U.S.

The Dynasty The Kennedys

6 minute read
Hugh Sidey

The Kennedy clan, the pre-eminent American political family of our time, seems to be cast in the stars, the distant stuff of legend. But look down. They march ever more numerous among us. There’s a spot on Washington’s infamous Beltway where an unsuspecting family might find their children in school with a couple of Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s 54 great-grandchildren. That same family could be the neighbors of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, one of the Kennedy clan’s five surviving originals (there were nine). It could be served in the Maryland assembly by delegate Mark Shriver, nephew of the martyred John Kennedy (and one of 29 grandchildren of Joe and Rose). And it could fall under the growing political hand of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, oldest child of the murdered Robert Kennedy, now Maryland’s lieutenant governor and touted for higher office.

Members of such a Beltway family would have as good a chance as not to pass Ethel Kennedy, Bobby’s widow and still the exuberant duchess of Hickory Hill, while driving to work along the Potomac River parkways. And if in the media or a lobbying business (a reasonable likelihood in that neighborhood), he or she would sooner or later sit down with Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy or his son, Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, now in the House leadership, to make a little political rain. Naturally, while attending one of those rites of pretentious power, like the Alfalfa Club dinner, our not-so-mythical Beltway denizens would look across a crowded ballroom or two and marvel at the intense stir created by the arrival of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg or the young Adonis, John Kennedy, the children of Camelot whose mythical allure swells with every surge of tabloid headlines.

The Kennedy clan is embedded in American political culture of the past half-century like no other family. They arrived at that power base through cold calculation and the blunt instrument of their immense wealth but also because of honorable service to the nation, their reckless exuberance and glamour–and family tragedy beyond measure. The founding father of the clan, Joseph Kennedy, came from immigrant stock with all the eccentric genius and anger of his blighted kin, but he was touched by the magic of America. He went to the elitist Boston Latin School; on to Harvard; and then in the Roaring Twenties, with little regard for ethics or even the law, plunged into the worlds of banking and moviemaking. He cashed in before the market crash of 1929. When Franklin Roosevelt called Joe to Washington to clean up the Securities and Exchange Commission, somebody asked F.D.R. why he had tapped such a crook. “Takes one to catch one,” replied Roosevelt. Kennedy did a superb job.

When Joe’s second son, John F. Kennedy, was ready to make his run for the presidency, the family fortune was estimated to be between $300 million and $500 million, one of the world’s great private hoards. “I never felt the Great Depression firsthand,” Senator Kennedy said as he campaigned in 1960. “I learned about it at Harvard.” By then, the moneymaking was clearly of secondary importance in the Kennedy ambitions. “None of my children give a damn about business,” Joe said with pride. “The only thing that matters is family. I tell them that when they end this life, if they can count their friends on one hand, they will be lucky. Stick with family.”

There was magic in that moment in history. Old Joe, whose methods and money were more suspect than ever, stayed out of sight while that handsome clan captivated America. Rose and her daughters gave teas and speeches; Bobby ran Jack’s campaign; and Ted gallivanted across the West riding broncos and making ski jumps. And the young Senator’s wife Jackie shivered in the cold blasts of Wisconsin, wearing her designer sheaths and elbow-length shell gloves, beautiful, hushed and unyielding in her honesty about where she came from and who she was.

In power, the Kennedys strode over their failures–the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall–with hardly a sidelong glance. John Kennedy’s popularity grew, resting on eloquent speeches, his ravishing family and his toughness in national-security affairs and against racism as civil rights upheavals seized the nation. “Jack’s the luckiest kid I know,” rasped Old Joe one day in New York City after the dark summer of 1961. “He has learned most of the lessons of being President right at the start.”

But the luck ran out in Dallas at noon on Nov. 22, 1963. Kennedy’s assassination would cut short the promise, would unleash a Niagara of probes and books and movies, and suddenly Camelot would be tarnished with tawdry revelations about John Kennedy’s careless sexual indulgences. But oddly, the legend of the Kennedy clan would soar above it all. There was enough honest devotion to the American ideal; there was enough honor and courage to carry it beyond the failures. The legend had been seared in the Dallas death throes. And then again in Los Angeles as a second brother fell. It was passed down as tribal wisdom to many children. It was the Holy Grail for the swelling ranks of the Kennedys themselves.

The family marched on, but all so human, no media blinders in this time. There was Chappaquiddick, the tragedy that disgraced Ted. And there was just plain dysfunction in the families of Old Joe’s grandchildren, which had so often been pictured as a healthy, endearing gene pool of American strength and enthusiasm–raucous but right. There were divorces, bizarre sexual escapades and tragic accidents, all of them strewn across the tabloids and blared worldwide by the talk-show hosts.

But beyond these titillating interludes of scandal is the fact that most of the 87 surviving members of the Kennedy clan live worthy lives, the number of their family and personal debacles far below the national average. Most of the adults have advanced degrees of some sort. Virtually all the clan of proper age has been involved at some point in public service. The great fortune of Joe Kennedy has been divided into trusts, and while it provides the family with ease in education and travel, it does not put any of them in today’s ranks of the superwealthy, the superindolent, the superarrogant. The adventure of public service still is the clan’s most powerful impulse. “More exciting than anything I’ve done,” said Old Joe a long time ago. The call is heard unto the fourth generation.

Hugh Sidey has reported on and written about nine U.S. presidencies for TIME

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