The Most Lasting Kennedy Legacy

How Eunice Shriver and her family changed the world for the mentally retarded.


Eunice Shriver was clearly the commander of the administration effort. When her friend and panel member Robert E. Cooke suggested the creation of new university-affiliated research centers, she stuck it in the final plan. She and Feldman helped broker disputes on the panel between the "hard" scientists, who thought retardation was best addressed as a genetic and prenatal problem, and their "soft" colleagues, who favored an emphasis on education to help improve the lives of retarded people. She also helped arrange the necessary support from congressional leaders, although that task was not very difficult: Most knew that the president cared deeply about the issue. JFK even broke away from one of the emergency meetings on the Cuban missile crisis on Oct. 15, 1962, to receive the panel's report. (More than 70 percent of its 112 recommendations were eventually implemented.)

As political leaders began to change their thinking, Eunice felt the public still lagged behind. She and her husband, Sargent Shriver, persuaded the Advertising Council to devise newspaper and magazine ads in early 1962. But she thought the single most powerful act to capture public attention was the revelation about Rosemary.

Journalist David Gelman was asked to work on the fateful article through the summer. "Eunice ran it like a campaign," he says. "There was a brain trust of experts at the ready, and she kept piling boxes near me of material to cram into the piece. Everybody was really nervous about the piece. But she was determined to knock down all the competitor afflictions when it came to getting government funding." In August, Gelman watched as President Kennedy speed-read through his copy, offered a few suggestions and gave his blessing.

A goal realized. As Eunice Shriver predicted, the change in public and scientific attitudes prompted by the article and the work of the presidential panel was striking. Over the next generation, the Kennedys' goal--to bring the retarded into the mainstream of American life--has been largely realized. Research breakthroughs on the causes of retardation and beneficial educational programs have proliferated, thanks to the funding launched in the Kennedy administration. American life and the lives of the retarded have been incalculably enriched by the drive to bring the retarded into full participation in communities, schools and workplaces.

The spinoffs from these first efforts are equally impressive. The family campaign to bring the retarded out of the closet, including the Shrivers' creation of the widely hailed Special Olympics, was a precursor of the larger disability rights movement. And Sargent Shriver says his inspiration to create the much admired Head Start program for disadvantaged children came from his familiarity with research that early-intervention educational efforts could raise the IQs of the retarded.

When the full judgment of the Kennedy legacy is made--including JFK's Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress, Robert Kennedy's passion for civil rights and Ted Kennedy's efforts on health care, workplace reform and refugees--the changes wrought by Eunice Shriver may well be seen as the most consequential. With a lot of help from her very powerful brother Jack and inspiration from her powerless sister Rosemary, Eunice Shriver helped move the nation for good and for all.