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COMMENTARY

Death of RFK’s granddaughter is latest burden for Kennedys

Saoirse Kennedy Hill with her mother, Courtney Kennedy Hill, in 2016.
Saoirse Kennedy Hill with her mother, Courtney Kennedy Hill, in 2016.Elise Amendola/associated press/file/Associated Press

The family that left its mark on the nation with its lilting Inaugural Day 1961 pledge to “bear any burden, meet any hardship’’ once again must bear another.

That presidential phrase and turn of mind, branded on the soul of a generation and exported with determination and destiny around the globe, was uttered by the great uncle of Saoirse Kennedy Hill, 22, who died Thursday at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port.

The country went on to bear much — in Southeast Asia and Central Asia, in its political struggles from Richard M. Nixon to Jimmy Carter to Donald J. Trump — even as the family went on to face so many hardships of its own:

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Twin assassinations (President Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy). Twin air accidents (Senator Edward M. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr., following by decades the 1940s airborne deaths of Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. and Kathleen “Kick’’ Kennedy). Death on the ski slopes (Michael Kennedy) and at the gym (Kara Kennedy). And, poignantly at least one drug overdose (David Kennedy, with reports that the death of his niece, Saoirse, was one as well).

Now comes the most sobering five words of this account: That is a partial list.

Saoirse’s death came at the home of her grandmother, Ethel Kennedy, 91, materfamilias of the Bobby Kennedy branch of the family. Her statement that the world was “a little less beautiful today’’ is a sentiment she has felt more than surely any other American woman of her time and prominence.

Because they are Irish, because they are Kennedys, because this is a country sick at heart at its politics, at this passage agonies and ironies abound. Let just one suffice:

This death comes at a time of a small but affecting burst of national Kennedy nostalgia, growing out of last month’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon that JFK set as a national goal and established as a symbol of American power and preeminence, idealism and ingenuity.

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A half century ago, in the wake of the death of Robert Kennedy following a shooting in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen, the Associated Press produced a volume on the Kennedy family with the evocative title of “Triumph and Tragedy.’’ With this family, as with the nation it sought to serve, the two have been intertwined for decades and across generations.

We remember the triumphs, we are bewildered by the tragedies — even at a great and growing distance from the historical triumphs.

The Kennedy administration settled into Washington well more than a half-century ago, as far from our time as the Theodore Roosevelt presidency’s was from JFK’s. The passion of Bobby Kennedy for racial justice — he was a remarkable vanguard for a white man of his time — is seldom cited anymore in our contemporary debates about identity and opportunity. The legislative genius of Ted Kennedy — working with devout conservative Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah to win legislation on child health, conspiring with the novice Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana on job training — is celebrated in the replica of the Senate chamber in the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate on Columbia Point but hasn’t been replicated for years in the real Senate in the District of Columbia.

The surviving Kennedys, to be sure, have made important contributions — Kathleen Kennedy as lieutenant governor of Maryland, former representative Joseph P. Kennedy II on affordable energy, former representative Patrick Kennedy on mental health, Joseph P. Kennedy III in the current House, among others.

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But more broadly, the Kennedys have retreated into history, much like the other Massachusetts dynastic political family, the Adams clan. And in recent years the Bush family — with two presidencies, two governorships, a vice presidency, and stints as director of central intelligence, a House member, a UN ambassador, and a diplomatic delegate to China to its name — has stepped off center-stage, perhaps for good.

A half-generation ago aspiring politicians aped the Kennedy style (Gary Hart with his hand in his suit-coat pocket like JFK, scores of liberals standing on windy beach bluffs with their blazers slung over their shoulders like RFK). Richard Nixon consciously sought the muscular poetry and elegance of the Kennedy argot (and it is unmistakable in his 1969 inaugural address, as eloquent as JFK’s but largely forgotten).

And yet in nearly 20 hours of 2020 Democratic presidential debates this summer, the legacy of the Kennedys went unspoken. None of those White House aspirants quoted Saoirse’s grandfather in his greatest speech, when in South Africa RFK said in 1966 that the world’s way forward “cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress.”

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None of them cited her great uncle’s 1963 landmark Oval Office civil rights speech and its argument that the nation was “founded on the principle that all men are created equal and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.’’ None recalled that as a senator John Kennedy wrote a stirring book on immigration in 1958 or that as chief executive he gave an important speech in 1963 speaking generously of potential immigrants “who are desirous of coming to this country, who can become useful citizens, whose skills are needed.’’

The Democrats’ reigning philosopher king, former president Barack Obama, was 2 years old when the president was slain in Dallas. For him, despite the early endorsement of Ted and Caroline Kennedy, the Kennedy years were no touchstone. New Frontier vigor is but a memory in an era when the president is a 73-year old golf duffer, the leading progressives are 77 and 70 years old, and the Democratic front-runner is a 76-year-old who, according to some accounts, made seven gaffes in last week’s debate.

Still, flecks of fairy dust remain on the Kennedys, as the reaction to the death of Saoirse — a young woman suffering from depression but passionate about the kinds of human rights causes that have animated the Kennedys for the past half century — displayed with astonishing force.

That’s because, after all these years and all these tragedies, elements of the Kennedy glitter are still there; walk down the street with Caroline Kennedy and the glamor is palpable, punctuated with her trademark graciousness. When Jack Schlossberg, grandson of JFK, appears for the annual May black-tie dinner at the Kennedy Library on that blustery promontory he often sports a tie once worn in the Oval Office. It is still in style, perhaps especially if you are of a certain age.

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There are, and for decades have been, Kennedy haters — because of their religion, because of their liberalism, because of their wealth and fame. Franklin Roosevelt thought Joseph Kennedy Sr. was, along with Huey Long, one of the most dangerous men in the country, and some Americans long in the tooth and with long memory never have forgiven the ambassador for his impulse toward Nazi appeasement in the 1940s. Some believe JFK was too late to civil rights, RFK too cozy with red-baiting Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, EMK (as the younger brother Ted was known in Kennedy and journalistic circles) too undisciplined in his private life. Even today the Martha’s Vineyard place-name Chappaquiddick retains a power all its own, more a metaphor than a cross-island bookend to Menemsha.

But one of the Kennedys sent troops to desegregate Alabama schools. Another gave stirring landmark speeches in Indianapolis (after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) and in South Africa (where at the University of Cape Town he confronted racial separation and said “the cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans’’). A third spoke at the end of his own mortifying political defeat to President Carter in 1980 of commitment to enduring ideals (“the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die’’).

Step later today into the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum down near the UMass Boston campus and take a sharp left toward the gift shop. On its well-stocked shelves you will see a refrigerator magnet and a T-shirt emblazoned with an excerpt from President Kennedy’s 1962 Rice Stadium speech sending Americans on their mission to the moon in the 1960s. It says:

“We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’’

That phrase, from a family that in triumph and tragedy made national purpose a national preoccupation, has been employed by tens of thousands of baby boomers to their colleagues and, more pointedly, to their children. The message: Do things not because they are easy but because they are hard.

Now the Kennedy family must do yet another hard and unthinkable thing, to bury yet another child. It has been — far, far too often — their burden to bear. No longer the first family in our politics, they remain, in this moment, first in the hearts of their country.


David M. Shribman, former Globe Washington bureau chief, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.