WASHINGTON -- Outsized in their ambition, their flaws, their tragedies and their accomplishments, the Kennedys have long occupied prime real estate in the political arena and the public imagination.
After Sen. Edward Kennedy's death late Tuesday, the family's last towering public figure is gone, but the Kennedy legacy is woven through American life in ways that will never disappear.
It lives on in the fusion of politics and celebrity created by patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy and his sons: in John F. Kennedy's leadership style and call to service; in a commitment to social justice inspired by Robert F. Kennedy, and in dozens of laws that bear Ted Kennedy's name or imprint — including one that made possible the multicultural, multihued society that elected a black man president.
The dark side of the family story also endures: Two assassinations and 13 children who grew up without fathers; accidents that claimed and damaged lives, and men behaving badly toward women, one generation after another.
Kennedys have been idolized and demonized for decades, romanticized as the second coming of Camelot and splashed across tabloids as exemplars of self-indulgence. "Sooner or later, we'll get a balanced vision of what they were," says Laurence Leamer, author of three books on the Kennedy family.
Boston University historian Thomas Whalen says anyone in a family, especially a large one, can relate to the adventures and misadventures of the Kennedys. "They are America's family," he says, "both good and bad."
The story of the Kennedy clan in America began with Patrick Kennedy, an Irish man who fled the potato famine in 1849. As the Kennedys prospered, many immigrants saw in the family's rising fortunes what they hoped to achieve for themselves.
Few people were as driven or flamboyant in pursuit of success as Joseph P. Kennedy, Patrick's great-grandson. He invested profitably in stocks, commodities, real estate and movie studios. There were stints as a bank president and a steel executive. Leamer and other historians say he supplied bootleggers with imported liquor during Prohibition. Afterward, he made a mint selling the stuff himself.
Joe Kennedy married Rose Fitzgerald, daughter of Boston's mayor, and became a friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt. That led to appointments as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and, in 1937, U.S. ambassador to Britain.
But Kennedy was out of step on World War II. He tried to improve German-American relations and opposed U.S. involvement in the war. When Britain was under siege in 1940, he made defeatist-sounding statements such as "Democracy is finished in England."
The miscalculations ended Joe Kennedy's diplomatic career and political prospects. Instead, he became what writer Vincent Bzdek calls a human blowtorch, propelling his sons into politics. He expected possibly all four to become president.
"He wanted to create a more lasting dynasty than the Roosevelts," says Bzdek, author of The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled.
The children — four boys and five girls — were schooled to be clannish. For all their wealth and education, "they always felt they weren't accepted," Whalen says. The prevailing attitude was "all we have is each other. We have to stick together."
Competitiveness, in the world and against each other, was the overriding Kennedy family value. Joe was "a father with very high expectations and wanted the boys to win at sports and everything they tried," says JFK's biography at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
Joe Jr. and Jack, the two oldest boys, competed so fiercely that some contests ended in injuries. Bzdek says the rivalry extended to the brothers' World War II exploits and may have led to Joe Jr.'s death.
The trigger was a night in August 1943, when a Japanese warship sliced in half a Navy Patrol Torpedo boat commanded by Jack. Ten of the 12 men on board the PT-109 survived the ordeal, in large part because of Jack's decisions.
Jack returned to a hero's welcome. Bzdek says a friend found Joe Jr. crying upstairs in his room while downstairs the family was celebrating Jack's valor. Joe, a naval aviator, "started volunteering for riskier and riskier missions even after he was supposed to come home," Bzdek says. "He wanted to show his courage and really outshine his brother."
Joe Jr. had been groomed to be the family's first political star. But in 1944, his explosives-laden plane detonated in flight, and he was killed.
The politics of glamour
Still determined to launch the Kennedy political brand, Joe moved on to Jack. Together the pair ushered in a political era of marketing, media, money and personality. "The Kennedy family forever dissolved the line between celebrity and politics," Bzdek says.
It started with Joe Kennedy and his combination of money, moxie and film-industry experience. He deployed all three in his own career and later in Jack's races for the U.S. House (1946), the Senate (1952 and 1958) and the presidency (1960).
One example: John Hersey had published an account of the PT-109 incident in 1944 in The New Yorker. Joe pushed to have it written and distributed 100,000 copies "to show Jack was a war hero," Bzdek says.
The family also marketed itself on TV. Jack was a natural and used the medium "to an unprecedented degree" in his 1952 Senate race, Whalen says. Eight years later, his TV presence helped him squeak to the presidency.
The Kennedys were pioneers in making the personal the political. Joe Sr. was "the first political figure to use his family as a political device," Leamer says, even encouraging journalists to interview his children.
Later, when his sons were running for office, the family participated in personal TV ads akin to half-hour infomercials. Voters were invited to hold viewing parties and call in to the programs with questions.
The first ad, "Coffee With the Kennedys," aired twice in 1952, once on each of the two TV stations in Massachusetts. "It was blatantly aimed at the women," says Allan Goodrich, chief archivist at the Kennedy library.
In the program, Rose and her daughters sat on couches and chatted about the family. Then JFK appeared, spoke to the audience and took call-in questions fielded by his sisters. In 1962, for Ted's Senate race, Rose showed off her home in Hyannis Port, Mass., and introduced her daughter-in-law, Joan, and the couple's children.
An aristocratic image
The Kennedys cultivated their image as American royalty. Political events included parties and teas, with ballroom dancing and receiving lines. Imagine getting home from your job as a factory worker, Whalen says, and finding between the bills in your mailbox a gold-engraved invitation to a fancy tea party hosted by the Kennedys.
"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?"
A Kennedy curse?
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.
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.
Three legacies into one
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.
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.