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 do not find it harder to understand, and those who come after us may find it utterly mystifying.
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, as well. 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," wrote Walter Bagehot 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.
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