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Remembering Michael Kennedy

January 1, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: The family dynasty grew out of the marriage in 1914 of businessman Joe Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of a Boston politician. They had nine children, five girls and four boys. The eldest son, Joseph, was killed in a plane crash in 1944. In 1948, another child, 28-year-old Kathleen, also died in a plane crash. John, who was elected President in 1960, was assassinated in 1963. His brother, Robert, decided to run for President in 1968, but on the night of his big victory in the California primary, Bobby Kennedy was also assassinated. The following the youngest Kennedy brother, Edward, a member of the United States Senate, drove a car off of a bridge at Chappaquidick Island in Massachusetts, killing a young female companion. Bobby and his wife, Ethyl, had 11 children.

As adults, several of them suffered from alcohol and drug addiction. In 1984, 29-year-old David died of a drug overdose, and now his brother, Michael, dead yesterday at 39. He was reportedly playing football with family members while skiing downhill in Aspen, Colorado, when he hit a tree. Last year, Boston newspapers carried stories about an alleged affair between Michael and his children’s babysitter that began when she was 14 years old. Michael was head of Citizens Energy Corporation, a non-profit organization that supplies low-cost heating fuel to the poor. In an interview he explained what it meant to him to be a Kennedy.

MICHAEL KENNEDY: I think the most important aspect people associate with my family is that one person can make a difference in this world if they really try.

JIM LEHRER: Now to NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and Journalist/Author Haynes Johnson. So, Haynes, we shake our heads and say, what about the Kennedys and the tragedies?

HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: It never stops, Jim. You know, I remember when the Kennedy–John Kennedy was assassinated. I had the feeling at the time–that day on November 22nd–it was like being alive maybe when Lincoln was assassinated because you had the feeling this only happened once in a century. It couldn’t happen, this sort of thing, in our times; it did happen; and since then it seems so innocent now because we’ve seen nothing but one tragedy after another. And this family is so much now a part of our fable. It’s no longer myth. It’s no longer history. It’s legendary. It’s Grecian. It’s Shakespearean. It’s like the Book of Job. I was thinking today literally go back and read the Book of Job, where the Lord inflicts tragedy after tragedy after tragedy and tests his soul, and with the Kennedys, they’ve gone through this endless process; that litany we’ve just seen is just without end.

JIM LEHRER: A word that was thrown around loosely today is “curse,” that there’s a curse on this family.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Unless you believe in witches and hobgoblins and voodoo, and I don’t–I don’t think that’s the case. I do think there’s something here. It is Shakespearean in the sense of huge tragedy. It’s no longer just a tragedy of one person, John or Robert Kennedy, whom I both knew and my colleagues also are experts upon that subject–and spent lives on studying them–but I have to say that this is something beyond that. It’s fiction. It’s Scotty Reston, the great New York Times columnist, when John Kennedy was killed, said, “Long after the historians have had their cut at John Kennedy, long after all of its memory, don’t even know, it will be a part of a playwright’s.” In that sense, it is Shakespearean, I think.

JIM LEHRER: Shakespearean, Doris, is that the term you would use?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: I don’t know. On the one hand it is possible to put a literary construct of a curse or of a family seeming to tempting fates. When you look at the manner of the deaths of some of these people–in President Kennedy’s original family, Joe, Jr. at age 29 had completed all the missions he needed to as a pilot in World War II, but he volunteered for a very dangerous mission, in part, some said because he had to equal the achievement of his brother, Jack, at the PT 109. He was killed on that dangerous mission just after his father had written him a letter saying, Joe, please don’t tempt the fates; come home; I love you. Not long after that, Kathleen. It wasn’t just a plane crash. She was going to meet and introduce her lover to her father. The plane was told it shouldn’t go up in the air because there was a terrible thunderstorm, and she insisted on going.

JIM LEHRER: Now, where was this, Doris?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: This was in Southern France.

JIM LEHRER: Southern France.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Her father had come over to France. She wanted her lover to meet him. They went up in a thunderstorm; the plane crashed; she died at the age of 28 years old. And then, of course, Jack and Robert by assassins’ bullets after President Kennedy was told not to go to Texas. So you can see to some extent–

JIM LEHRER: And also Robert Kennedy ran for President even though the word was out there was in the air, oh, my goodness, you might be endangering your life.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Absolutely. So partly I can understand the literary construct that can be put on this family and yet, on the other hand, what’s so confusing is that each individual’s life is a mystery as to when it will end and the manner of its death, and there’s probably no way of knowing whether curses or tempting fates have anything to do with that. Michael’s accident could simply have been an accident; President Kennedy was not really thinking he was going to be assassinated in Texas; Teddy Kennedy stayed in public life. He has not been assassinated. So I think sometimes it’s because this family leads its life on such a public stage that we tend to make it Shakespearean. In my own family life my father at the age of nine lost his little brother to a trolley car. Two months later his mother died in childbirth complications. Two months after that his father died, and not long after that his little sister died in a freak dentist chair accident. Yet, no one ever said there was a curse because it was a private life, as most of our lives are lived. So there’s something about the scale of this family’s achievements and its tragedies that makes us put these constructs on them, which are partly true and partly not.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Scale is it, is it not, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it is. Everything is lived on a larger scale in this family. They have at certain times in the last 60 years more political power than anyone, more fame, more money, more glamour. Everything is out-sized, and that’s also very American. And that’s one reason why the Kennedys have occupied this enormously, this unique place in American history and also in our imaginations. And, you know, the other thing that struck me, as I heard both Haynes and Doris talking, is that tragedy does follow on tragedy, because–


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, look at Robert Kennedy, 1968. As you mentioned, Jim, he ran for President, despite the fact that there were a lot of threats against him. He campaigned across the country. In those days presidential candidates did not get Secret Service protection. He had only the most rudimentary informal bodyguards, oftentimes volunteers, who would help to protect him in a way that we in 1998 would consider very unserious. Had he been better protected he probably would not have lost his life in Los Angeles when he was shot in June 1968, but RFK felt that his brother had sort of tempted the fates. He said, “Man was not made for safe havens,” and in a way there was an element of trying to defy certain forces that otherwise people might have been a little bit more careful about. RFK’s death caused these children, this large family of his, not to have a father. And David Kennedy, in the early 1980’s, lost his life, thanks to drug overdose. We have no idea or no serious idea what happened yesterday in this tragedy with Michael Kennedy, but these things might not have happened had Robert Kennedy taken a different course in 1968.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Haynes, you talked to Robert Kennedy. You knew Robert Kennedy very well. And you talked to him about this very thing, did you not?

HAYNES JOHNSON: He had an incredible fatalism. He had a sense because of the whole history we’ve talked about–his two brothers, John and Jo, and because of–

JIM LEHRER: His sister.

HAYNES JOHNSON: –his sister, Kathleen, “Kick” was her name, and this sense that you can lose it at any minute, at any moment, as Michael says. He was aware that this was a dangerous time, 1968, of great internal rebellion within the country, volatility, racial riots, unrest, and he had–war in Vietnam–and he charged ahead. He had this sense–we all–we were on a plane once–and we had a very bad landing and we were sitting next to each other and we looked each other in the eyes. Nothing needed to be said. You had the sense that–he knew you were living your life on the string. And one of the things the Kennedys did was to have faith, take the risks, prove themselves.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And in Robert Kennedy’s case we now know that there’s at least the possibility that he felt that perhaps something that he had been involved in political might have led to his brother’s assassination. And it has been speculated that caused him to feel that it would have been unworthy for him to protect himself excessively in 1968.

JIM LEHRER: Doris, what about this basic idea, though? I mean, you just went through what happened in your family; that if you are around a lot of sudden death, where you get to believe, my goodness, you could go at any moment, does that make you want to take less risks, or more risks?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, it’s a very interesting question. I think in some ways in the Kennedy family it does seem to make them want to live more fully. It’s interesting, Rose Kennedy once said to me that she was convinced that–

JIM LEHRER: This was Rose Kennedy–


JIM LEHRER: The mother.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: –of course, of Jack and Robbie.


DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And she once said to me that she was convinced if her children who had died young had a choice and could back to life, they would still choose to be who they were even with the shortness of the years they were allowed to live because they’d had such adventure, such richness in their lives. And I thought about that so many times as I watched my own little kids grow up and thought, oh, my God, I hope I would never make that choice because the problem was they may have had adventurous lives but as Michael said, what impact did it have to have them die so young on their kids? So there is a spiral in this compound. The thing that I think exerts an endless fascination over the country, however, is that despite all these tragedies the family still retains its hold as a family in a disintegrating time of families in the country. They’re all gathering at Hyannisport. How many families have a place where everybody can go to over generations? So however much we get our interest taken away from this family, it sort of gets pulled back because this family still exists as a force.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Doris, you just reminded me of something I’ve never forgotten till this moment. I was at the 25th wedding anniversary–for Sgt. Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the oldest of the girls next to Jack Kennedy–and this was many years ago, and it was outdoors and a lovely thing, and they had–they put these home movies on. And they all–the Kennedys, the family–they started–oh, look, there’s dad, look, oh, there’s Jack, oh, look, there’s Bobby, and I thought, my God, they’re all dead, and yet they were celebrating their lives in this way, and don’t ask me to explain it, but it was something powerful.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about this risk business, that–you’re saying that Bobby Kennedy, the Kennedy that you knew the best–it just made him want to take more risks–was he oblivious to risk?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Jim, I don’t know. I think if you’ve been in combat, for instance, or if you have been in dangerous places, sometimes you go either one way. You withdraw, or you plunge back into life. And I honestly think with Jack Kennedy almost dying in the Pacific–this is an amateur psychiatry–I’m not practiced–to license–psychiatry here–

JIM LEHRER: You are here.

HAYNES JOHNSON: But I really think that there’s something to that; that you live intensely for the moment and you grab life, serve what you can, and take it, and taste it.

JIM LEHRER: Whether it’s 28 years or it’s 98 years.

HAYNES JOHNSON: The Kennedys seem to have felt that way, and I can kind of understand that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you understand that, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I do. And that runs back to the grandfather, Joseph Kennedy, whose business career, the fortune he built, really came on taking enormous risks of all kinds, and also this whole improbable political career of this family, coming out of Boston, the early 1930’s. Who could have imagined that they would dominate our politics for 60 years? All that was based to some extent on a gamble.

JIM LEHRER: And yet, of course, when the first news–at least in my case when I heard the news of Michael Kennedy–that he had died–and then the second news is how he died. Finally, it came out that he was playing football going down with another member of the family, while going down on skis, which is a very typical Kennedy to do.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It sure is, and I think that is perhaps one of the best answers to the question of whether if you come out of this family where so much has happened to you, whether you tend to be a little bit more risk taking, or whether you tend to be more cautious.

HAYNES JOHNSON: And the pressure to live up to these myths, these giants among you, your elder brother is–and all of the relatives–and at Hickory Hill, when they were children, those Kennedy, Robert Kennedy children, they were all swinging on through the trees and so forth and getting broken legs and banged up. This was being a Kennedy.


DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I remember being at the 20th anniversary of Bobby’s Kennedy’s death at Arlington Cemetery, and all the little kids, not only of Bobby’s children, but their children were there planting a wreath, making a little speech, talking about how they wanted to live life fully and somehow keep the whole Kennedy ethos going. And that ethos is adventure, taking life, living it, if they can, as long as possible. It gets passed down from one kid to another because the family’s so integral to each other.