Youngest son reflected Kennedys' ambition, foibles

"It's a special moment," he says. "It gives some liveliness to your life."

The aristocratic imagery escalated during JFK's presidency, when first lady Jacqueline Kennedy showcased high art, culture and cuisine at the White House. "She was the one who brought the glitz, the style," Whalen says. "She created Camelot."

After her husband was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy adopted the image of "one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot" from a Broadway musical about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The metaphor is still strong.

It was evident last year, after Caroline Kennedy, John's daughter, endorsed then-candidate Barack Obama and likened him to her father.

It later expanded to the candidate's wife. "Michelle Obama: Camelot 2.0?" MORE magazine asked last fall.

After the fall election, CBS Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith spelled it out.

"People are finding it difficult not to compare the Obamas with the Kennedys, with their youth and glamour and vigor. Both men use words well. Both women are stunning in their own right, and then there is the idealism," he wrote. "Do we dare to hope again for Camelot?"

The underside of the Kennedy mystique was sometimes catastrophic and always compelling.

There were the tragedies of the 1940s: Joe Jr.'s war death in 1944; his sister Kathleen's death in a plane crash in France in 1948; and the lobotomy their father ordered for their mentally disabled sister, Rosemary, in 1941. She emerged far more disabled and was institutionalized until she died in 2005.

Later came the traumas of the 1960s: The assassination of Jack in Dallas in 1963, the assassination of Bobby after he won California's presidential primary in 1968, the night in 1969 that Ted's car plunged off a bridge near Martha's Vineyard. Ted survived, but 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne drowned.

The incident is known to this day by the island on which it occurred: Chappaquiddick.

What was Kopechne, a former RFK campaign aide, doing in the car with Ted? Why did he fail to report the accident for more than nine hours?

Kennedy, by then a veteran senator, said he was not intoxicated and was giving Kopechne a ride home from a reunion of his late brother's aides. He said his conduct after the accident made no sense to him and was indefensible.

Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was sentenced to a suspended two-month sentence in jail. He was not arrested or indicted, and the following year he won re-election.

Chappaquiddick was one of many dramas in Kennedy's personal life.

Others included his near-death in a plane crash in 1964; his rocky marriage to Joan and their divorce in 1982; his son Ted Jr.'s loss of a leg from bone cancer at age 12; his son Patrick's struggles with bipolar disorder, alcoholism and prescription drug addiction; and his own carousing, right up to the night in 1991 that Kennedy, son Patrick and nephew William Kennedy Smith went drinking in Palm Beach, Fla.

They returned to the family home nearby with some women, and one charged Smith with raping her. Smith was acquitted, and Kennedy, though he wasn't involved, apologized for his lifestyle in a speech at Harvard.

Before Ted there was Jack, with his steamy White House tenure and well-documented extramarital affairs. Historians point to Joe Sr. as the source of his sons' attitudes and behavior toward women.

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