There may be no other American family as well-known for their political contributions or their “curse” of tragedies as the Kennedys. Since 1848, when the patriarch Patrick Joseph Kennedy came to the United States from Ireland to his son Patrick J. Kennedy being elected to a public office to John F. Kennedy’s (JFK) powerful and tragically short term as U.S. president before his assassination, the Kennedys have left an indelible imprint on American politics and culture. For every triumph they faced, they also endured countless tragedies, and the family legacy carries on today.
Tragedy: John F. Kennedy’s Sister Rosemary Is Lobotomized
Rosemary Kennedy, one of JFK’s sisters, suffered oxygen deprivation at birth which left her intellectually impaired. In the competitive, politically ambitious Kennedy family, her differences were not welcomed by her father, Joseph Kennedy. As she grew to womanhood, she became prone to fits and tantrums. In 1941, her father scheduled a secret surgery — a lobotomy — which physicians said would make her “docile.” Instead, it robbed her of her ability to speak or walk, and she was kept from her siblings for almost two decades and institutionalized until her death in 2005.
Tragedy: JFK’s Oldest Brother Joseph Dies in a Drone Strike
Even before the Kennedy name was well-known in American politics, JFK’s brother, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., volunteered for a dangerous mission as part of Project Anvil — flying drones full of explosives into enemy territory in WWII. He and his co-pilot were supposed to get the drone running then bail out before it dropped its payload. Unfortunately, the explosives detonated before they could eject, and both Kennedy and his co-pilot died on Aug. 12, 1944, over East Suffolk, England.
Triumph: JFK Wins the Pulitzer Prize in Biography
Before JFK even entered politics, he was inspired by the topic of political courage, which he pursued as part of his senior thesis at Harvard. After his election to the House of Representatives in 1946 and the Senate in 1952, he experienced firsthand the pressures and challenges of being a legislator. During his leave of absence for back surgery in 1954, he delved deeper into the topic by following eight senators he felt had shown courage under pressure and published the book “Profiles in Courage.” The book won the Pulitzer Prize in biography in 1957.
Triumph: JFK Narrowly Defeats Richard Nixon To Become President
Since JFK was much beloved as a president, it’s easy to imagine he won the presidential election by a landslide in November 1960. In reality, the race between him and then-Vice President Richard Nixon was so close that Kennedy only held a 1 percentage point lead over Nixon four days before the election. The election wasn’t called until the morning after when Kennedy claimed 303 Electoral College votes to Nixon’s 219. But Kennedy only won the popular vote by 112,000 (of 68 million), a margin of 0.2 percent.
Triumph: Robert F. Kennedy Supports the Black Civil Rights Movement
After JFK was elected president in November 1960, he appointed his brother Robert F. Kennedy to be America’s 64th attorney general. Robert used his position to support the black civil rights movement, among others. In 1962, when James Meredith — the first black student to be admitted to the University of Mississippi — arrived at school, he found the entrance blocked and protesters rioting. Robert sent 500 U.S. Marshals to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court order that allowed Meredith to attend the university.
Tragedy: JFK and Jackie Kennedy Lose Their Newborn Son
JFK’s third child with Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy (later Onassis), Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, was born prematurely and suffered from hyaline membrane disease — now called infant respiratory distress syndrome — a lung condition with only a 40% survival rate. On Aug. 9, 1963, only two days after his birth, Patrick died. Jackie could not even attend her son’s funeral because she was still recovering from her cesarean section. Some speculate that their son’s death brought the couple closer together.
Triumph: JFK Brings the Economy Out Of Recession
Kennedy inherited an economic recession from President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration when he took office. He embarked on several measures to restore the economy, including significant tax reforms, such as a new investment tax credit. The gross domestic product (GDP), which had slowed under Eisenhower to just 2.2% per year, grew an average of 5.5% from early 1961 to late 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated. This rate of growth continued until 1969.
Tragedy: President John F. Kennedy Is Assassinated in Texas
On Nov. 22, 1963, JFK was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald while riding in an open car during a procession in Dallas, stunning the world. Kennedy’s successor, then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, formed the Warren Commission to determine the motivation for JFK’s killing. It determined that Oswald was a lone assassin, but there were many conspiracy theorists who did not accept this answer. So, by 1979, another group formed to re-investigate the assassination, the United States House Select Committee Assassinations (HSCA). It came to the conclusion that Oswald didn’t act of his own accord, but as part of a larger conspiracy, though a specific party or parties was never determined. Due to the continual public interest in the case, all but 1% of the remaining documents related to the assassination have been declassified, with no conclusive answer.
Triumph: Rosemary's Condition Inspires the Special Olympics
JFK’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver grew up frustrated that her intellectually impaired sister Rosemary couldn’t attend the same summer camps that she and her siblings would enjoy. So, she started her own camp for children with disabilities. Games held at these camps eventually inspired the Special Olympics, an athletic competition for those with disabilities that started in 1968.
Triumph: RFK Calms Grieving Crowd After Martin Luther King Jr.'s Assassination
On April 4, 1968, just a few hours after beloved activist and preacher Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, JFK’s brother Robert, who was campaigning to be the Democratic presidential nominee, addressed a devastated crowd in the predominantly black neighborhood of Indianapolis. He empathized with their loss, drawing upon his own grief over his brother’s murder, and offered solace to an understandably upset crowd. Some believe he prevented riots that might have taken place.
Tragedy: US Sen. Robert F. Kennedy Is Assassinated
Just when it seemed that the Kennedy family had suffered enough tragedy, on June 5, 1968, just after U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy secured the Democratic presidential nomination, he was shot to death in a kitchen corridor at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles by a man named Sirhan Sirhan. The shooter is still serving a life sentence for the crime today.
Triumph: Ted Kennedy Becomes Youngest Majority Whip in the US Senate
JFK’s youngest brother, Edward “Ted” Kennedy, took up the family mantle of politics at the tender age of 30, becoming a senator in his home state of Massachusetts. After Robert’s assassination, Ted became the youngest-ever majority whip in the U.S. Senate in 1969, and he also had designs on the presidency. He served in the Senate until his death in 2009, making him one of the longest-running American senators.
Tragedy: Sen. Ted Kennedy Is Involved In a Fatal Accident on Chappaquiddick Island
On the night of July 18, 1969, Sen. Ted Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile off the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. He survived the crash, but his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Joe Kopechne, was trapped inside the car and drowned. Since Ted did not report the incident to police until the next morning, many questions remained unanswered. He was ultimately charged with leaving the scene of an accident.
Tragedy: RFK’s Son David Dies From a Drug Overdose
On April 25, 1984, the fourth of RFK’s eleven children, David A. Kennedy, died of a drug overdose in a Florida hotel room at the age of 28. The autopsy revealed three drugs in his system: cocaine, Demerol and Mellaril.
Triumph: Caroline Kennedy Publishes a Book on Constitutional Law
JFK’s only daughter, Caroline Kennedy, was fascinated with constitutional law, so she co-wrote and published the book “In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action” with fellow law graduate Ellen Alderman. She opted not to take advantage of her mother’s publishing industry contacts, and the book was published through William Morrow & Co. in February 1991.
Triumph: John F. Kennedy Jr. Forges His Own Path in Publishing Instead of Politics
John F. Kennedy Jr., the only living son of JFK and Jackie, opted out of his father’s path in politics for his mother’s by going into publishing. In 1995, he launched a political and cultural magazine, George, which was considered revolutionary for being “a lifestyle magazine with politics at its core.” Critics saw it as just another gambit by a spoiled, rich Kennedy, while admirers felt he enacted a truly unique vision — one that still rings true today.
Tragedy: RFK’s Son Michael Dies in a Skiing Accident
On December 31, 1997, the sixth of RFK’s sons, Michael Lemoyne Kennedy, died after skiing into a tree on an Aspen, Colorado, ski slope at the age of 39. Michael, whose family had tried to push him into politics, had barely survived a recent scandal in which he was accused of having an affair with his children’s babysitter. He’d split from his wife of 16 years and attended sex addiction treatment before his untimely death.
Tragedy: JFK Jr. Dies in Small Plane Accident
At the peak of his publishing success, and not three years after making fashion publicist Carolyn Bessette his wife, on July 16, 1999, JFK Jr. died while piloting a small plane off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Bessette and her sister Lauren were also killed. Their bodies were recovered at sea on July 21. The National Transportation Safety Board cited pilot error as the cause of the crash — assuming that the fledgling pilot, who had almost no experience flying at night, likely got disoriented in the haze.
Tragedy: Sen. Ted Kennedy Collapses at President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Lunch
Struggling with what would prove to be a fatal brain tumor, Sen. Ted Kennedy collapsed with a seizure at President Barack Obama’s inaugural lunch on Jan. 20, 2009. He would only live another seven months. On Aug. 20, 2009, Kennedy made an unusual and sudden request to change Massachusetts state law, to allow for his swift replacement. He asked for an interim senator to be appointed in the instance that his own seat became vacated on short notice. He died just five days later, on Aug. 25, 2009.
Triumph: Caroline Kennedy Is Appointed Ambassador to Japan
In July 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama nominated Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg to be U.S. ambassador to Japan. Critics in Japan felt that she was only given this nomination because of her vocal support of Obama during the presidential primaries and because Japan was an “easy” role for a relatively inexperienced ambassador. Admirers, on the other hand, felt she provided a powerful role model to Japanese women, who rarely hold positions of authority.
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