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 state lawmaker in Rhode Island about 30 years ago and hearing words of encouragement from the opposition leader at the time.
“I just want you to know that no matter what you do, nothing will take away everyone’s memory and appreciation for what your family did for this country,” Republican David Dumas told him.
“He meant, ‘Don’t worry about whether you’re a good representative of your family or not,’” 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 a turning point in the nation’s history – as a source of modern conspiracy theories, as a debate about what JFK could have achieved , as the emotional cornerstone of the Kennedy story.
The anniversary comes at an unusual time for the Kennedys. It’s a moment when the family’s mission to uphold a legacy of public service and high ideals competes for attention with the presidential candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose anti-vaccination and inflammatory comments on everything from the Holocaust to the pandemic, led to a rare public family rift.
Robert’s sister, Kerry Kennedy, has cited her differences with him “on many issues,” while Jack Schlossberg, grandson of President Kennedy, called Robert’s candidacy “a disgrace.”
“We haven’t seen this happen before in the Kennedy family,” said historian Thurston Clarke, author of books about President Kennedy and his brother Robert. “In the past,” says Clarke, “they have been very reluctant to attack each other.”
Robert Kennedy Jr.’s current fame – which Patrick expects will be a footnote to a larger story – is not only notable for what he says and how it deviates from the family history. It is notable because he is the rare Kennedy engaged in national electoral politics these days.
For generations, the Kennedy dynasty was aligned with the Adamses, the Roosevelts and the Bushes. Their time in public office dates back to the 1890s, with Rep. (and future mayor of Boston) 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; brother-in-law Sargent Shriver led the newly formed Peace Corps and brother-in-law Stephen Smith served as White House chief of staff. Youngest brother Ted Kennedy was elected to John F. Kennedy’s former Senate seat in Massachusetts.
President Kennedy’s death and Jacqueline Kennedy’s recollection of his administration as a lost golden age, “Camelot,” heightened feelings about the family and the longing for their presence. Ted Kennedy became a respected liberal voice and lawmaker, while Shriver was chosen as George McGovern’s running mate in their failed 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 sibling Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was a two-term lieutenant governor of Maryland. Arnold Schwarzenegger, then married to JFK’s niece Maria Shriver, served as governor of California for two terms.
But the Kennedys have largely retreated from electoral politics in the 21st century; no Kennedy or in-laws currently serve in Congress or as governor. Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter and only surviving child, was open to replacing Hillary Clinton in the US Senate in 2009 after Clinton was appointed Secretary of State by President Barack Obama. She quickly stepped back amid signs that New York Governor David Paterson would not select her. He didn’t.
“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 path?” says historian Sean Wilentz. He says the assassinations of JFK and Robert Kennedy may have left “too great a burden on the next generation to continue and complete what remained unfinished.”
Patrick Kennedy, who left Congress in 2011 amid the battle against substance abuse and bipolar disorder, agrees that today’s political atmosphere 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 it. haunts, noting that his wife Amy ran for Congress in 2020 — unsuccessfully.
“When we went there and campaigned, it was very inspiring,” says Patrick Kennedy. “There were a lot of people at the grassroots who were so inspiring – to see how passionate they were about changing the world.”
The Kennedy administration now lives on more in the mind than in firsthand memory. One of the last prominent White House aides, speechwriter Richard Goodwin, died in 2018. President Kennedy’s last surviving siblings, former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Jean Smith, died in 2020. Robert F. Kennedy’s widow , Ethel, is in her nineties and rarely comments publicly.
From 1968, after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Ted Kennedy was 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. a plane crash in 1999 ended the life of the most prominent family member of his generation, the one most discussed as a possible presidential candidate. Caroline Kennedy has kept a low profile as ambassador to Japan during the Obama administration and as ambassador to Australia under the Biden administration.
“That’s a tremendous responsibility and a huge yoke around your neck to have to bear that,” Patrick Kennedy says of his father’s stature. “And Dad really did it – he really held it together. But it was an incredible personal toll it took on him.”
When asked if he would have liked to take on his father’s role, Kennedy says no: “That chapter is closed.”
In the absence of an old-fashioned family elder, RFK Jr. the most talked about Kennedy, who has attracted a larger following than most independent candidates. Historian Julian E. Zelizer, author of numerous works on contemporary politics, considers JFK and his brother Robert “unifying figures,” while describing Robert Jr. finds a symbol of ‘division, distrust and a kind of skepticism about public culture’.
Patrick Kennedy, who otherwise declined to discuss his cousin in detail, called Zelizer’s comments “a pretty honest statement.” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but issued a statement about the anniversary and about his uncle’s legacy.
“During his time in office, he held to a vision of America as a nation of peace, a vision that was abandoned after his death,” said Kennedy, who vowed to “put us back on the path to peace.”
Other family members remain active in various causes, albeit in a less well-known way than in JFK’s time.
In addition to 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, Ted Kennedy’s widow and now ambassador to Austria.
Patrick Kennedy is founder of the mental health advocacy group Alignment for Progress, and notes that the last bill signed by JFK, the Community Mental Health Act, “is the foundation of a modern movement to adopt a community-based approach to to restore our mental health care. and addiction crisis.”
Timothy Shriver is chairman of the board of the Special Olympics, which his mother (and President Kennedy’s sister), Eunice Shriver, helped start in the 1960s. Kerry Kennedy, Robert’s daughter, is a human rights lawyer and runs the nonprofit RFK Human Rights. Kerry’s sister Rory Kennedy is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose subjects range from rural Mississippi and the Iraq War to a film about her mother, Ethel.
“There are many 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 contribute much to public life – and made no sacrifices.”
“I can literally consult my entire family and there’s no one who isn’t doing something,” says Patrick Kennedy, who notes that his name still has a major influence on his current work. “I have been absent since then. 2011, and I can get anyone to call me back.”