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The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled

The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled

by Vincent Bzdek, George Witte

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John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy's individual stories can be seen as essentially one, each successive brother striving to fulfill the interrupted promise of the brother before. The closing of Ted Kennedy's chapter in America's political and cultural life means that, for the first time perhaps, the real measure of the Kennedy legacy can finally be taken. This is a


John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy's individual stories can be seen as essentially one, each successive brother striving to fulfill the interrupted promise of the brother before. The closing of Ted Kennedy's chapter in America's political and cultural life means that, for the first time perhaps, the real measure of the Kennedy legacy can finally be taken. This is a story of a brotherhood in three acts: Act I is John F. Kennedy's presidency, as seen from Ted's front-row seat. Act II is Robert Kennedy's five brief years as the family standard bearer, including his tenure in the Senate with his brother Ted and the memorable 82-day presidential campaign that redefined the Kennedy legacy. Act III is Ted's 40-plus years in the Senate as keeper of the flame.

How did the brothers pass the torch to each other? What have the three brothers left us collectively? And who carries the torch forward now? The Kennedy Legacy compellingly answers these questions and much more.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Washington Post news editor and features writer Bzdek (Woman of the House: The Rise of Nancy Pelosi, 2007) recasts the brothers' famous story in four acts, as each picks up the torch in the aftermath of tragedy. Act I chronicles their childhood under a harsh father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who groomed his sons for politics from a very young age; it ends with the death in World War II of Joseph Kennedy Jr., oldest brother and the family's political hope. In the second act, John takes Joe Jr.'s place and goes from congressman to senator to president in scarcely over a decade. Act III follows Robert as he soldiers on after John's assassination, becoming a senator and a presidential candidate, only to be shot in 1968. In the final act, Edward, too, runs for president and eventually becomes the lion of the U.S. Senate. Bzdek sees the Kennedy legacy not as a brief, shining moment, but as an ongoing part of the modern American story, with each brother continuing the mission of his predecessors. It's not a highly original insight, but the author delineates it succinctly and compellingly. Bzdek shines in his selection of details that reveal the Kennedy's humanity: Joseph Sr. unfurling a map at the dinner table to make geopolitical points to his children; John showing up for his first day as a congressman in tennis shoes and no jacket; Robert weeping onstage at the 1964 Democratic Convention; Edward's determination to give a speech at the 2008 Democratic Convention despite his diagnosis of brain cancer. Little here will surprise Kennedy buffs, but Bzdek does a fine job with the material. A short but well-told overview. First printing of 75,000. Author tour to New York, Boston, Washington, D.C.
From the Publisher

“Washington Post news editor and features writer Bzdek. . .delineates [the story] succinctly and compellingly. . .Bzdek does a fine job.” —Kirkus

“The strength of Bzdek's book is to put Kennedy's accomplishments in the context of his family history” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Vincent Bzdek is a superb writer and terrific researcher. He's gotten to the heart of what made the Kennedy brothers such a powerful force in American politics.” —Tom Cronin, author of The Paradoxes of the American Presidency

“In a timely and readable biography, Vince Bzdek describes in authoritative and colorful detail Ted Kennedy's remarkable rise from the bottom rung of the legendary Kennedy family's public service ladder to a transcendant role in American politics, government and public life.” —Len Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post, and author of The Rules of the Game

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The Kennedy Legacy

Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled

By Vincent Bzdek

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2009 Vincent Bzdek
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-62087-2



The way it worked was the old man would push Joe, Joe would push Jack, Jack would push Bobby, Bobby would push Teddy, and Teddy would fall on his ass.

—Garry Wills, The Kennedy Imprisonment

The House of Kennedy was built at the dinner table.

"One of my most vivid childhood memories is of our family gatherings around the table at dinnertime," Ted Kennedy recalls. "Conversation was lively and interesting, prompted by questions from my mother and father about events of the day. With nine of us eager to impress our parents as well as one another, it was hard to get a word in unless you had something interesting to say."

The dining room was classroom as much as eating-place. One family friend remembers a map on the dining room wall that Joe Kennedy would unfurl to make geopolitical points to his children. The dining room was where Joe and Rose Kennedy first engaged their children's minds in politics and current affairs, where the nine siblings all struggled to carve out their unique roles within the family hierarchy. It was also where their competitive instincts were honed, their rivalries were worked out and the ties that bound them so tightly to each other were rewrapped nightly. It was a verbal bath for visitors, a nonstop bull session supercharged with curiosity, energy and enthusiasm. Charles Spalding, a friend of John's who was often invited to dinners with the family, summed it up this way: "You watched these people go through their lives and just had a feeling that they existed outside the usual laws of nature; that there was no other group so handsome, so engaged. There was endless action ... endless talk ... endless competition, people drawing each other out and pushing each other to greater lengths. It was as simple as this: the Kennedys had a feeling of being heightened and it rubbed off on people who came in contact with them. They were a unit. I remember thinking to myself that there couldn't be another group quite like this one."

Seventeen years separated Joe Jr., the oldest, from Teddy, the youngest, and the sheer number of children—enough to field a baseball team—required a mealtime battle plan. By the time Teddy was old enough to join the family for dinner, Rose had divided her brood into two distinct tiers. The younger children—Teddy, Pat, Jean and Bobby—had an earlier mealtime at the little table. Eunice was the swing child—sometimes she ate at the little table, sometimes the big. She became a kind of pivot for the family, swinging back and forth between the older and the younger and between the boys and the girls as well. She was at home in either subtribe, equally proficient with dolls and dress-up as with tennis and sailing. Though Rosemary was the oldest girl, she joined the young children's table, too, where Rose felt she would be more comfortable because of her developmental disabilities. Rosemary was slower than the other warp-speed Kennedys, and at the time the family believed her to be retarded, though evidence now suggests she had a mental illness of some sort, perhaps severe depression.

The older children ate later at the big table with the adults. "These three—Joe Junior, Jack and Kick—were like a family within a family, a charmed triangle," said one Kennedy friend. Kathleen had been nicknamed "Kick" when she was a small child because her exuberant personality reminded her father of a high-spirited pony. "They were the pick of the litter, the ones the old man thought would write the story of the next generation." Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin called them "the golden trio." While they were growing up, the younger children of the little table lived forever in the shadow of the children of the big, a status not altogether unwelcome, especially for Teddy. The intense pressure Joe Sr. put on his children to succeed was somewhat deflected by the older kids, allowing Ted and the other young ones to fly a little lower under the radar.

The ritual of the family meal took precedence over everything—schoolwork, sports, play and friends. Dinner started at a fixed time every night, and Rose broached no tardiness. If a child was late, as Jack often was, he missed a course. The children all stood when Rose made her entrance, and remained standing until she had taken her place. A cook and maid prepared the meals; a butler and the family waitress served them. Sometimes the Kennedys went through 20 quarts of milk a day. Rose posted news items on a bulletin board and children were expected to bone up on them before dinner. Joe Kennedy "would always assign a subject—Algeria, for example—to one child and instruct him to find out all he could on the subject," said one of Jack's personal secretaries. "Then he would tell the other children to do the same so they could question the first one who made his report and see how much he really knew. Both father and mother tried to develop alert minds in their children by giving them mental exercise."

"We learned early that the way to be an active part of dinner conversation was to have read a book, to have learned something new in school, or, as we got older, to have traveled to new places," said Ted. "Our parents opened our nine young minds to the world that way, and it's been a wonderful lifelong gift."

"I can hardly remember a mealtime," Bobby Kennedy reflected, "when the conversation was not dominated by what Franklin Roosevelt was doing or what was happening in the world." During World War I, a friendship had sprung up between the two men when Joseph Kennedy, an assistant general manager of Bethlehem Steel, started doing business with Roosevelt, who was assistant secretary of the Navy at the time. Kennedy was an early supporter of Roosevelt for the presidency, seeing in him not the radical socialist revolutionary many people feared, but rather an energetic reformer who saw just what changes the country needed to lift itself out of the Depression. Kennedy also supported Roosevelt's early stance against involving America in the troubles brewing in Europe, but that early agreement, and their friendship, would dissolve as Hitler became more and more of a threat and Roosevelt girded the country for war.

Joe would bring home politicians, scholars, actors and other leading lights to talk to his children at the dinner table. Charles Lindbergh came to dinner, as did Henry Luce, owner of Time, Life and Fortune, and his wife, Clare Booth Luce, a celebrated journalist and playwright. Mrs. Luce came away with a particularly memorable impression of the Kennedys. "Where else but in Gothic fiction," she wrote, "where else among real people, could one encounter such triumphs and tragedies, such beauty and charm and ambition and pride and human wreckage, such dedication to the best and lapses into the mire of life; such vulgar, noble, driven, generous, self-centered, loving suspicious, devious honorable, vulnerable, indomitable people ... no wonder the American public, their audience—for that matter much of the world—has been fascinated by them."

One night the Kennedy kids quizzed Dorothy Tubridy, a visitor from Ireland, about their Irish heritage—culture, painting, writing and geography. "It was very stimulating, very interesting conversation because they were all terribly intelligent and well educated and very enthusiastic about everything," Tubridy recounted. "It was Joe's idea to expose his young brood to men and women of accomplishment, hoping, I think, that their elements of greatness would be seen and studied by the children," said Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a friend of Kennedy's. Joe was so proud of his dinner table salon he even had the gall to invite Gloria Swanson, Hollywood's most celebrated actress, to dine with his wife and children at the same time he was conducting a well-documented affair with her. Rose handled the occasion with her usual stoic denial that anything was ever amiss in her marriage, treating Swanson as if she were merely a glamorous business associate.

Joe encouraged his children to stand up for their own opinions and ideas and to argue against his at the table. "He encouraged them to thoroughly discuss why they felt certain ways, and he encouraged them to disagree with him," recalled Jack's friend Lem Billings. He wanted the children to develop their own views and backbones. He would carefully explain both sides of some great issue of the day, and his view on the issue, and when he was finished, the boys all felt free to disagree, respectfully. "He never wanted them to agree with him," said Billings.

Joe set up each of his children with a million-dollar trust fund, according to Lem, "because he wanted them to be independent [so they] could thumb their nose at him when they came into their money." "The truth is that they couldn't possibly be around the old man without being interested in damn near everything," said one dinner-table visitor. A family friend added, "It wasn't like any other dinner table."

If one of the children's friends at the table interjected, however, Joe often cut them off cold. The children's friends were welcome in the house, but their opinions at the dinner table were ignored. The Kennedy family was a closed circle. Joe bred an us-against-the-world mentality into his children in reaction to the prejudice he'd encountered as a Catholic in an old-money Protestant town. Joe was still treated as an outsider despite his massive wealth. He was once turned down for a country club membership because he was Catholic, and the hurt lingered. "The origin of the Kennedy sense of family is the holy land of Ireland, priest-ridden, superstitious, clannish," wrote Gore Vidal. "It flourished a powerful sense that the family unit is the only unit that could withstand the enemy, as long as each member remained loyal to the others, regarding life as a joint venture between one generation and the next."

The sexism often associated with the Kennedy brothers was taught at the dinner table, as well. Joe usually ignored Rose's questions at dinner, too. Though the family matriarch led the table salons when Joe was gone, often focusing on geography to take advantage of her deep love of travel, she played a supporting role when Joe was home. Joe just wasn't as interested in the opinions of his daughters, or Rose, as much as he was in the views of his four boys. "He paid more attention to the boys," the Kennedys' nurse, Louella Hennessy, remembers. "The father liked to get together with the older boys, and he'd draw the details of their peccadilloes out of them, and they'd all laugh," a friend of Ted's recalls. "The old man kept track of everything they did. If he sensed something, if he had some kind of clue but not the story complete, he'd pretend he knew all about it and more often than not he'd worm the rest out of them fast enough," said another.

The Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, faces the sea rather than the village, creating a private Kennedy peninsula on Nantucket Sound, walled off from the world by a ten-foot hedge. Hyannis Port itself has no city center, no geography of community, and the only pier belongs exclusively to the Kennedys. The cluster of clapboard houses is more an outpost than a town, a "faraway nearby" kind of place that shares the stunning geography of Cape Cod but remains isolated from it all the same. Joe Kennedy wanted it that way. He taught his children that the standards and measures of the Kennedy family itself were the only ones that mattered. His fortress of solitude was a self-contained training compound for competition against the Brahmin world.

It was also a bastion of masculinity, punctuated by touch football games on the compound's sprawling lawns, sailing contests in Nantucket Sound, marathon tennis matches and open-sea swimming. Joe Jr., Jack, Bobby and Ted ruled the household like brother kings, and competed like them, too. Right behind Joe Sr. as a motivating force was Joe Jr., his oldest son. The competition within the family to live up to Joe and the older siblings was fierce.

Many aspects of the Kennedy brothers' personalities show the influence of the older siblings as much if not more than the parents' because Rose and Joe Kennedy were away a lot when the boys were growing up. The older children, Joe, Jack and Kathleen, taught the younger children swimming, sailing, tennis and studying. They were often godparents for the younger children, as well, an unusual arrangement in Catholic families. Jack Kennedy, at age 14, wrote home from school when Teddy was born. "Dear Mother, It is the night before exams so I will write you Wednesday. Lots of Love. P.S. Can I be Godfather to the baby?" Teddy kept the letter framed on his office wall.

Joe Jr. became a kind of substitute parent for all of the children. He was clearly the favorite of Joe Sr. and Rose, the very best their parents could have hoped for in a child. He was 6 feet 2 inches tall with movie star looks and a strapping, athletic build. His dark blue eyes pulsed with vitality, and everything he pursued, he pursued to the hilt, especially his role as big brother to eight. "You know I'm the oldest of my family," Joe once explained in all earnestness to a friend. "And I've got to be an example for a lot of brothers and sisters." Jack thought Joe's principal contribution to the Kennedy legacy was his brotherly love. "I have always felt that Joe achieved his greatest success as the oldest brother," Jack once said. "Very early in life he acquired a sense of responsibility towards his brothers and sisters, and I do not think that he ever forgot it. He would spend long hours throwing a football with Bobby, swimming with Teddy and teaching the younger girls how to sail.... I think that if the Kennedy children amount to anything now or ever amount to anything, it will be due more to Joe's behavior and his constant example than to any other factor. He made the task of bringing up a large family immeasurably easier for my father and mother, for what they taught him he passed on to us and their teachings were not diluted through him but strengthened."

In her memoirs, Rose wrote, "If you bring up the eldest son right, the way you want others to go, that is very important, because the younger ones watch him.... If he comes in and shakes hands with the guests, the others will watch him in the doorway and they'll come in and do the same thing. If he works at his studies and his sports until he is praised, then the others will follow his example."

There was a unique bond between the oldest and the youngest, father-to-son in nature. Joe would hoist Teddy up on his shoulders when he saw him, and shower him with kisses like a parent would. He would always visit Teddy's room first when he got back from school, and he decided to call the family's new sixteen-foot sloop The Teddy. "My brothers, in addition to my parents, were the most important influences in my life ..." Ted said privately to a friend. "I think of my brothers every day."

As they were growing up together in Brookline and Boston, the four Kennedy brothers quickly staked out distinct roles that would stamp them for the rest of their lives. In short, Joe Jr. was the family's star, Jack its wit, Bobby its soul and Ted its laugh. Joe was the most combative of the four, Jack the most reflective, Bobby the most intense and Teddy the most agreeable. Joe lapped up politics; Jack, history; Bobby, religion; and Ted the company of others. "Joe Jr. could tell you all about Franklin Roosevelt's cabinet, Jack Kennedy about Sir Walter Raleigh and Marlborough, Bobby about the lives of saints and their feast days," said Richard Mahoney, author of Sons and Brothers: The Days of Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Ted, with his easygoing gregariousness, made everyone smile.

"Since Bobby was less outgoing, he and his father tended to have quiet conversations," said Hennessey. "Even at thirteen and fourteen, Bobby was a deep-thinking boy and very close to his mother. Then Teddy would come in and the atmosphere in the room would completely change, for Teddy was like the sunshine, lighting up everything in sight and keeping his father young. Through the corridors, you could hear them laughing as Teddy jumped up and down on his father's bed until he was exhausted." "He always seemed to be laughing," says sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver. "He was just constantly cheerful."

* * *

When Ted Kennedy was six years old, Joe Jr. deliberately threw him out of a sailboat into Nantucket Sound when he didn't answer the command "jib." Ted was too young to understand what a jib was, but that didn't matter in the competitive brotherhood in which he grew up. Teddy wasn't quite sure he would survive in the chilly water, but Joe dove in and tossed him back into the boat. "And then he told me not to tell my parents," said Ted. "Which I didn't. I certainly wouldn't risk the wrath of an older brother."

When Bobby Kennedy was three and a half years old, he also went sailing with some of his brothers and sisters on Nantucket Sound. All of a sudden, he decided to jump into the water himself and go for a swim, something he hadn't yet learned how to do. He hadn't needed any push from Joe, who pulled him back into the boat. Then Bobby jumped in again, determined to teach himself to swim or die trying. Jack Kennedy, who had watched from shore, a bit aloof to the goings-on, used to love to tell the story, adding the observation: "It either showed a lot of guts, or no sense at all, depending on how you looked at it."


Excerpted from The Kennedy Legacy by Vincent Bzdek. Copyright © 2009 Vincent Bzdek. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Vincent Bzdek is the news editor and a features writer at The Washington Post. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, Wired Magazine, The Denver Post, and is the author of Woman of the House (Palgrave, 2007). He lives in Washington, D.C.

Vincent Bzdek is the news editor and a features writer at The Washington Post.  He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, Wired Magazine, The Denver Post, and is the author of Woman of the House. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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