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 American 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 hard-working, 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.