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Michael Barone: The End of America’s Experiment With Royalty

The Kennedys were the closest our democratic nation has ever had to a royal family

Edward Kennedy was buried Saturday, the last son of Joseph and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the longest-serving member of the only royal political family our democratic republic has ever produced. Those who remember the 1960s understand viscerally, even if they do not share themselves, the almost mystical devotion the Kennedys inspired. Those who don’t find it harder to understand, and those who come after us may find it utterly mystifying.

Michael Barone
Michael Barone

But it was real. Other political families — the Adamses, the Harrisons, the Tafts — produced multiple generations of national politicians but generated nothing like mass enthusiasm. The sons of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt set out on political careers but never got very far.

The Kennedy boys — John, Robert and Edward — were different. They won three elections to the House, 12 elections to the Senate and one to the presidency. From 1960 to 1980, they were major presences, active or off to the side, in every presidential contest.

This was the work initially of the patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, a self-made millionaire, hyper-ambitious for his sons, who manipulated the media with aplomb. Joseph Kennedy invited himself to the apartment of Henry Luce, the proprietor of Time and Life, to watch the coverage of his son’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 1960. He also arranged to have a new car parked in the driveway of Arthur Krock, Washington bureau chief of The New York Times. The result was fabulous media coverage not just of the candidate but of the extended Kennedy family. A republic elects men (and women) to hold office. A monarchy celebrates a royal family.

And this was a charming and youthful family. For 18 years before the 1960 election, Americans had presidents in their 60s. At his inauguration, John Kennedy was 43 and his wife 31, with infant children. “Royalty is a government in which the attention of the nation is concentrated in one person doing interesting actions,” Walter Bagehot wrote in 1867. “A family on the throne is an interesting idea also. It also brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life.” And so Vaughn Meader’s record satirizing “the first family” and their unusual accents topped the charts and was played over and over at parties.

Once his son was elected president, Joseph Kennedy insisted that his sons Robert and Edward become, despite their thin credentials, attorney general and U.S. senator. Naturally, there was speculation that they would follow their brother to the White House in quasi-royal succession, something never contemplated before in U.S. history.

After the assassinations of John Kennedy in 1963 and Robert Kennedy in 1968, there were great hopes of a Kennedy restoration, to the point that Mayor Richard Daley offered the Democratic presidential nomination to the 36-year-old Edward Kennedy at the 1968 Chicago convention. Kennedy’s failure to report the fatal accident at Chappaquiddick the next year ended his chance at being president, permanently, as it became clear in 1980, when he lost his challenge to Jimmy Carter. But he persevered and became a hardworking, liberal legislator, as many have recalled in their tributes in the past week.

As candidate and president, John Kennedy was hawkish on foreign policy, cautious on civil rights, with a domestic program that included tax cuts on high earners. How the Kennedys came to be associated not with his cool centrism but with a passionate liberalism has been explained best by James Piereson in his subtle and penetrating book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism.

In the process, a royal political family that seemed to command widespread support — after he endorsed the civil rights bill in June 1963, John Kennedy’s job approval ranged up toward the 70s, except among white Southerners — came to be associated with the left end of the political spectrum. Edward Kennedy, for all his ability at legislative deal-making, became a polarizing political figure.

The next generation of Kennedys has had mostly disappointing political careers. Joe Kennedy and Patrick Kennedy made it to Congress; Kathleen Townsend and Mark Shriver failed to do so; Maria Shriver made it to the governor’s mansion in Sacramento, but Townsend failed to do so in Annapolis; Caroline Kennedy will not follow her father and uncles in the Senate.

I suspect the royal status the Kennedys temporarily achieved in our democratic republic will seem bizarre to future generations. Perhaps it already does even for those of us who can remember the 1960s.

Michael Barone is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report and principal coauthor of The Almanac of American Politics. Click here to contact him.

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