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In 1946, a young Massachusetts naval veteran named John F. Kennedy got elected to a seat in the House of Representatives. A member of that family has served in the federal government at some level ever since.
Just when it looked like Sen. Ted Kennedy’s declining health might leave the U.S. Senate without a Kennedy since 1963, his niece, and JFK’s daughter, emerged recently as a possible choice to replace Hillary Clinton.
Until her endorsement of Barack Obama this year, Caroline Kennedy had always resisted venturing outside the family for any partisan political activity (she did support her Uncle Ted’s presidential run in 1980). Yet her endorsement of Obama was based precisely on the similarity between the inspiration he and her father produced in people.
Like Obama this year, Kennedy seemed to represent a new generation when he ran for president in 1960. Also like Obama, he brought new people into the political process who hadn’t been active before. Kennedy entered office the way Obama will enter it in January: Carrying the hopes of the many millions who are looking to him for a new start, especially as the bearer of a new idealism.
It’s possible the decision to name a new senator from New York has already been made one way or the other by the time this is published. But the emergence of Caroline Kennedy as a candidate brought up issues of “dynasty politics” and “political nepotism.”
For many of us, it’s also an opportunity to explain why the Kennedys mean so much to us even to this day.
To say that John F. Kennedy inspired many in his generation to enter public service is not just rhetoric, it’s the absolute truth. In my many years of activism within the Democratic Party, I’ve met quite a few people who said they became active because of the example and life of JFK.
Kennedy certainly didn’t enter public life to get rich; he already was. He could have sat beside a pool with a drink in his hand for his whole life had he so chose. But he made a choice to get into politics and government and try to make a difference.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” remains some of the most stirring and profound words ever uttered in an inaugural address. His assassination less than three years later was one of the worst tragedies in American history. A cruel fate deprived him and his country of what might have been, including the avoidance of losing 58,000 American lives in that awful war in Vietnam.
After 1963, Robert Kennedy slowly but surely found his voice as a champion of the oppressed and the poor. He was able to bring white and black people together unlike anyone else of his very racially divided time. He might have saved us from Nixon and Watergate had he lived. Ted Kennedy’s long service to his country has been acknowledged even by the conservatives he has fought.
As for dynasty politics, well, Americans are a little bit like the British. We don’t seem to mind “royal families.” Democrats have had the Kennedys, and Republicans have had the Bushes. As long as the winners play by the rules of democracy, why should we care who’s related to whom?
No, Caroline Kennedy is probably not the most qualified person for that Senate seat in New York. But she is an author, an attorney, and a philanthropist who has especially done a lot for public education.
She’s also a Kennedy, and that’s why I’d like to see her appointed.
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Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.