Profiles in Greatness: The Kennedy Legacy

UPDATED: November 2, 2009
PUBLISHED: November 2, 2009

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 nine children.

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 Kennedy clan.

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 mentally disabled.

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 Ronald Reagan.

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.

Amy Anderson is the former senior editor of SUCCESS magazine, an Emmy Award-winning writer and founder of Anderson Content Consulting. She helps experts, coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs to discover their truth, write with confidence, and share their stories so they can transform their past into hope for others. Learn more at and on Facebook.