Youngest son reflected Kennedys' ambition, foibles

Even as he was being hailed as "the moral savior of Hollywood," Leamer says, he was living out there with Gloria Swanson and once even brought her to dinner with Rose. "That wasn't hypocrisy, that was just a man's life. The way of the world," he says.

Whalen says Ted's personal lapses may have been rooted in the risk-taking Joe Sr. encouraged in his children and Ted's role as the family's sole surviving son.

"It all came upon him to carry the family mantle. He had to take care of all his nieces and nephews. He was under tremendous pressure," Whalen says.

Bzdek, referring to the American Movie Channel show about the advertising business in the 1960s, says the Kennedy men "came out of this Mad Men era when it was cool to have this playboy macho image."

He credits Victoria Reggie, the family friend who married Ted in 1992, with warning him that he needed to change if he wanted to preserve his legacy and his family's.

To grasp the family's substantive contribution to national life, start with JFK.

He was president for only 1,000 days, but in that time he set goals such as sending a man to the moon and ensuring civil rights for African Americans. He memorably challenged citizens to "ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."

Bzdek says Kennedy "made public service seem interesting, noble and even cool." The Peace Corps led to AmeriCorps, Teach for America, numerous other service programs and a first couple who have participated in and promoted service programs all their adult lives.

"He got a lot started that other people then carried on. He was a motivator and a morale builder," Bzdek says. He says JFK's "emblematic form of leadership celebrating aspiration and challenge" is a model for many leaders, including Obama.

Next came RFK, who served as attorney general in his brother's administration and won a New York Senate seat in 1964. Though his 1968 presidential campaign was brief, within a few months, he transformed his family's legacy into a commitment to the dispossessed.

"That campaign was unbelievable. There was nothing else like it," Bzdek says. "He didn't go to swing states. He went to the poorest places in the country. He would walk with union members in their protests, wade out in crowds. He wanted people to touch him."

After Bobby's slaying, the torch — and all his brothers' causes — were passed to Teddy.

For 47 years he legislated. He worked for civil rights for minorities, health coverage for the poor, better education for everyone. He was instrumental in causes his brothers never considered, such as airline deregulation. He helped push through a 1965 immigration bill that ended the bias toward Northern Europeans and let more people from other nations, many of them people of color, into the USA. The proposal originated with his older brother John.

Whether it was growing up fatherless, growing up Kennedy or just bad luck, the current generation has seen more than its share of death and scandal. Joe III had a car accident in 1973 that left his female passenger paralyzed. David, another of RFK's sons, died of a drug overdose in 1984. A third son, Michael, asked forgiveness in 1997 for an extramarital affair with a teenage babysitter. Later that year, he hit a tree while skiing and died.

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