Youngest son reflected Kennedys' ambition, foibles

John Jr., JFK's son, died with his wife and sister-in-law while flying his plane to Martha's Vineyard, Mass., in 1999. He had been hugging the shore, Bzdek says, despite his uncle Ted's warnings that doing so was dangerous.

By design or circumstance, most of the adult Kennedy cousins live in a lower key than their famous fathers and uncles. Still, most of them carry on what Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, RFK's oldest child, calls "the family business" of public service.

She says she distinctly remembers her father coming home "very much stunned and shocked" from hunger hearings he held as a senator in the Mississippi Delta. "Do you know how lucky you are?" he asked her. "Do something for your country."

Townsend says RFK often quoted Luke 12:48 to his children — "to whom much is given, much is expected." He made sure they visited an Indian reservation before taking a wonderful river trip out West, she said, and drove through Harlem on the way to their nice apartment near the United Nations in New York.

"He always wanted us to see a part of life that most people in our situation wouldn't see," she said in an interview.

Townsend went on to establish the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. As a private citizen and as lieutenant governor of Maryland, she created statewide character education and student service programs and a college scholarship for students who serve four years as police officers. She is chair of the Institute of Human Virology, which treats AIDS victims and does AIDS research.

Among RFK's other children, Joe III is founder and chairman of Citizens Energy, which makes heating oil affordable for the poor. Robert Jr. is an environmental lawyer. Kerry is an international human rights activist. Rory is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose subjects have included nuclear power, and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Caroline, Jack's daughter, has written books on civil liberties and raised money for New York City schools. Patrick, Ted's son, is an advocate in Congress on mental health issues. All five of Eunice Kennedy Shriver's children are in local politics or leading organizations that help poor or disabled children. A number of cousins have dabbled in politics, but they haven't shown the drive of their fathers or grandfather. The highest office is held by Patrick, a congressman from Rhode Island.

Townsend was Maryland lieutenant governor for eight years but lost her 2002 bid for governor. Joe III represented Massachusetts in the House of Representatives for 12 years but retired in 1999. Caroline Kennedy expressed interest in 2009 in being appointed to an open Senate seat in New York but withdrew after a lackluster debut on the public stage.

"They don't have the fire in the belly," Leamer says of the Kennedy cousins. Beyond that, Bzdek says, some are scarred by what happened to their fathers and uncles. "There's a real sentiment among this generation that they paid too high a price for their public service. There's less talent and ability in this generation, but there's also less willingness to do whatever it takes," he says.

John Jr., charismatic and becoming increasingly political before he died, was an exception.

"He was the designated heir. He could have been an effective politician," Bzdek says. For now, the Kennedy saga remains "a brotherhood in three acts," as his book puts it.

The curtain has fallen, but the play won't be soon forgotten.

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