The Kennedy family has been called American royalty.
Their story has become legend, and their history, full
of tragedy and triumph, has been a lesson in public
service for generations. Because, no matter what you
may think of politicians, many who serve in public
office do so out of a desire to serve their fellow man.
With the recent passing of Ted Kennedy and Eunice
Kennedy Shriver, we pause to reflect on the Kennedy
legacy of service.
“[He] held up standards for us, and he was
very tough when we failed to meet those
standards. The toughness was important.”
—John F. Kennedy, about his father
Joseph Patrick Kennedy (1888-1969), the patriarch of the
storied Kennedy clan, was a man of ambition and, ultimately,
great wealth. He made his start as a banker and made money in
the stock market, getting out before the 1929 crash. He married
Rose Fitzgerald, the Boston mayor’s daughter, and the couple had
Joseph’s business acumen in a variety of industries helped him
amass a fortune over his lifetime, but politics was his true passion.
He chaired the Securities and Exchange Commission, was chair
of the Maritime Commission, and, in 1937, was appointed
ambassador to Great Britain. However, he eventually recognized
that his political ambitions would be fulfilled by his sons and
not himself. He threw his financial and personal backing behind
them, expecting excellence on all fronts and instilling in the
siblings a fierce competitive spirit.
“The heart of the question is whether all
Americans are to be afforded equal rights and
equal opportunities. Whether we are going to
treat our fellow Americans as we want to be
treated.” —John F. Kennedy
When his older brother Joe Jr. was killed in World War II, John
(called Jack) assumed the Kennedy political mantle. Despite his
father’s support, Jack struggled behind the scenes with chronic
back pain and suffered from Addison’s disease, which compromises
the immune system. He was given last rites three times
before his 40th birthday. But he never let these physical challenges
best him, and while in the Navy, he requested a more active duty
than his original assignment, which led him to command a patrol
boat in the Pacific and win medals for bravery.
Thanks to financial backing from his father and the political
legacy of both his paternal and maternal grandparents, Jack
won a 1946 Massachusetts House seat. He served three terms
and then won a Senate race in 1952.
Kennedy used his assets—his youth, charm and good
looks—to his advantage by campaigning for the presidency
in 1960 against Vice President Richard Nixon on the latest
medium: television. When he won, he established domestic
policies in line with his philosophy of expanded democratic
benefits for all citizens, including long-awaited civil-rights
legislation. He also opened the opportunity of service up to the
public by establishing the Peace Corps. Unfortunately, his work
was cut short when he was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.
Moral courage is a rarer commodity than
bravery in battle or great intelligence.”
—Robert F. Kennedy
Having run his brother’s Senate and presidential
campaigns, Robert (called Bobby) was
also his brother’s most trusted advisor in the
White House, serving as attorney general. His
strong support of civil rights and his position in
the White House allowed him to provide U.S.
marshal protection to the first African-American student at the
University of Mississippi.
After his brother’s death, Bobby resigned his Cabinet post and
was elected as a New York senator. He worked to raise awareness
of poverty and sponsored legislation that brought successful businesses
into neighborhoods in dire need of revitalization. His travels
to Eastern Europe, Latin America and South Africa brought attention
to much-needed democratic reforms in those areas.
In 1968, Bobby won the California primary in his own bid for the
presidency. The next day, he was assassinated at the age of 42.
Circumstances may change, but the work of
compassion must continue.” —Edward M. Kennedy
Edward (called Ted) was the youngest of Joseph’s children,
17 years younger than his brother Jack. Ted was elected as
Massachusetts senator in 1962. And after his brothers’ deaths,
and then his father’s, in 1969, Ted became the patriarch of the
In 1980, he lost a nomination for the presidency, but his
constituents in Massachusetts were faithful and kept him in
office until his death in 2009.
His 47 years in political service allowed him to be an advocate
of civil-rights legislation, healthcare reform, energy conservation
and education. He passed away on Aug. 25 of this year. Upon
his passing, Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah said, “Today
America lost a great elder statesman, a committed public servant
and leader of the Senate. And today I lost a treasured friend.”
“Every person, regardless of whatever
different abilities they may have, can
contribute, can be a source of joy, can
beam with pride and love.”
—Eunice Kennedy Shriver
Joseph Kennedy’s sons weren’t the only ones to
make a mark through public service. His daughter Eunice Kennedy
married the first director of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver, and
went on to make a difference worldwide in the equality of the
Eunice’s older sister, Rosemary, was born with mild retardation.
When her brother Jack was in the White House, Eunice
persuaded him to speak publicly about their sister, at the time a
social taboo. She also pushed for legislation and further scientific
research. In 1968, she founded the Special Olympics, a sports
program for mentally disabled children, and in 1984, Eunice
was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President
By using her wit, wisdom and her family’s political clout, Eunice
garnered the support of world leaders for her cause of equality
for the mentally disabled, and today the Special Olympics World
Games host athletes from more than 180 countries. Eunice passed
away on Aug. 11 of this year.
“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what
your country can do for you; ask what you can
do for your country.” —John F. Kennedy
The Kennedy legacy continues, as the third generation serves
the public in political office, media, law and nonprofit work. Maria
Shriver, Eunice’s daughter, serves as first lady of California, journalist
and author. Eunice’s son Mark, Ted’s son Patrick, and two of
Bobby’s children have all held political office. The ultimate lesson
of the most famous U.S. political family is that the highest ambition
one can have is service.