Once there were nine siblings, and now just Jean Kennedy Smith is left from the children of Joe and Rose FitzGerald Kennedy, who went on to become the most powerful political family in America.
We forgot what the Kennedys accomplished for Irish Americans. They grew up in an era when “No Irish Need Apply” signs were still up in some New England neighborhoods.
The family’s summer house was in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts only because the Newport, Rhode Island snobs would not have Irish Catholic neighbors.
By the time John F. Kennedy became president all had changed utterly. He defined an American generation and made Irish American identity a definite plus, especially in politics. After he became president the No Irish Need Apply signs were taken down forever.
We can say their names now with a mixture of awe and admiration, starting with the most recently deceased, Senator Edward Kennedy, who championed over 3,000 pieces of legislation, passed over 350 major bills during his time in the Senate and became the voice of the powerless in the most powerful institution on Earth.
He could make and break presidents but never became one himself. Barack Obama became president in large measure because Kennedy decided to back him at a critical moment in his primary race against Hillary Clinton.
Equally, Kennedy’s run against Jimmy Carter in 1980 made it impossible for Carter to be re-elected because of a deeply divided Democratic Party.
On Irish terms, his work on the peace process and immigration reform will be his legacy. He was the champion of Ireland on Capitol Hill for a generation and his influence will be deeply missed.
His sister Eunice, founder of the Special Olympics predeceased him by two weeks. She too was an extraordinary woman, one who felt strongly about her handicapped sister Rosemary and decided to do something about it. The Special Olympics are her monument, and one can hardly think of anything better.
Robert and John F. Kennedy were the two brightest stars in the firmament. It would have been nice for Obama during his eulogy for Kennedy to acknowledge that he would never have become president but for the civil rights legislation that Jack and Bobby championed back in the 1960s, and that Teddy helped sign into law.
JFK, a war hero, will forever be the lost leader, the political giant cut down in his prime. Bobby will always be the leader America never had, a man of rare conscience and commitment who might have been the best president ever.
Joe Kennedy, Joe Senior’s oldest son, was killed in World War II after undertaking a bombing mission so dangerous that it was almost inevitable that he would never return. He died a true American hero.
On the female side o f the family, tragedy also struck. Kathleen Kennedy married British nobility (her mother did not approve and they became estranged) and was killed in a plane crash when she was just 28. Her sister Rosemary was brain damaged from birth and later had a frontal lobotomy, a treatment for mental illness at the time.
Jean Kennedy Smith went on to become ambassador to Ireland, a role she performed extremely well. Patricia Kennedy Lawford became a huge champion of the arts and helped establish the John F. Kennedy library.
The Kennedys had an incredible range of talents and achievements. Little doubt that the history of the 20th century in America will be writ large with the name Kennedy.
Now that we have lost the last politician, Teddy, the story of the Kennedy family begins to draw to a close. It is one that will inspire future generations to public service and helping the underdog. That will be their legacy for countless Americans.
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