The last time the halls of Congress were not filled with at least one Kennedy, televisions were not common in each household, let alone each room. President Barack Obama was not born, and in fact would not be for another 14 years.
But with the retirement of Rep.Patrick Kennedy, Washington will have no elected Kennedys for the first time since 1946 when the new Congress arrives in January. Politics aside, I am sorry to see him, and by default his family, go.
Growing up in an Irish Catholic household, revering the Kennedys was on par with cheering for Notre Dame football and eating fish every Friday night. It was something we just did, and didn’t question. November 22 means something to me, even though I was born more than 11 years after that fateful Dallas trip. I could not tell you who shot John Lennon, but I knew the name Sirhan Sirhan before I made my First Holy Communion.
The Kennedys inspired generations and did more good than bad for the American experience. And while much has been written about some of the family’s lower moments, it’s better to reflect on their key contributions.
John Kennedy was the first Catholic president. With 6 of the 9 members of the Supreme Court Catholic in 2010 this doesn’t seem special anymore. But a mere 32 years before Kennedy’s election, New York Gov. Al Smith lost the presidency in large part because he was Catholic. The nation preferred the Protestant, Herbert Hoover.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, John’s sister, started the Special Olympics. Her efforts began in the 1960s. At a time when Down’s syndrome children were often called Mongoloids because their features made them look Asian, and no one seemed to find this term offensive, she was a trail blazer. While the number of Down’s syndrome children being born has sharply declined because of abortion, there are millions of other special needs children and families who will appreciate Shriver’s efforts for generations to come.
Subsequent generations of Kennedy children and grandchildren have continued to work to make America a better place. Shriver’s son Timothy is chairman and CEO of Special Olympics. Kathleen, the oldest daughter of Robert, was instrumental in Maryland in making public service a key component of every child’s education. John’s daughter Caroline has worked hard to keep her father’s legacy alive with the Profiles in Courage awards.
The politics of the modern Kennedy goes against everything I was taught to believe and revere about the family. They are practicing Catholics but have no problem with abortion. They have no problem sending their own children to Catholic schools, but are opposed to vouchers so the less fortunate can do the same. Make no mistake, from a philosophical point of view, having the nation free of the Kennedy footprint on legislation is a good thing.
But the American experience is about more than philosophy. The American experience is about bringing diverse voices together to solve common problems. Patrick Kennedy may not have had the loudest voice, but he still offered a perspective that most others do not and cannot. My Dad always said when two people were in business together and they always agreed, one was not necessary. With the Kennedys gone, the different and unique perspective this family offered will be gone. We all would be better off if this absence is not for long.