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New biography recounts how Eunice Kennedy Shriver ‘changed the world’

Eunice Kennedy Shriver wasn’t a president, attorney general or senator. But the lesser-known Kennedy sibling was arguably no less influential. Judy Woodruff talks with Eileen McNamara, author of the new book "Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World."

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  • John Yang:

    They include a president, an attorney general, and a senator. The Kennedys are one of the most storied political families in American history.

    Judy Woodruff sat down recently with the author of a book about a lesser known, but arguably no less influential Kennedy sibling, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Eileen McNamara, thank you for joining us.

  • Eileen McNamara:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, the book title is "Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World."

    And it's not just the title, but, in an early review, "Kirkus Reviews," they describe your book — quote — "a convincing argument that Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the fifth of nine Kennedy children, changed the world in ways at least as significant as her more famous relatives."

    That's a high bar.

  • Eileen McNamara:

    Yes, that's a pretty high bar. I think she hurdled it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was almost as if she was born with additional energy and additional drive. Where did that come from?

  • Eileen McNamara:

    Well, it's interesting, because she was born with all kinds of physical ailments, and yet she powered through them.

    Somebody else might have taken to their bed. But Eunice took to the athletic fields. She took to her schoolbooks. She excelled at everything she did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you cite in the book a point when, later in her life, she was talking about growing up and what her parents said to her, and she said, "I was told real power wasn't for me."

    What did that mean?

  • Eileen McNamara:

    It meant she was a Kennedy woman, not a Kennedy man.

    And as bright as she was — she graduated from Stanford — she wasn't given the opportunities in politics or in public life that were available to her brothers. They just simply didn't see her, because she was a girl.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that mainly was her father?

  • Eileen McNamara:

    It was mainly her father, yes.

    It was mainly — she asked him she wrote a very plaintive letter to him in the '50s, asking, "Daddy, you're spending so much time on everyone's career. What about me?"

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We use the term force of nature. We throw that term around a lot to describe people with big personalities.

  • Eileen McNamara:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in this case, in a family full of people with big personalities.

    So, what made her stand out?

  • Eileen McNamara:

    I think her drive.

    She says in a speech that she makes toward the end of her life you mentioned that, real power is not for me. So they didn't give it to her, so she took it. She hijacked the family's charitable foundation, essentially, to turn it to her interest, which was helping children with intellectual disabilities.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But it was her drive, that desire to do something to find justice for people who didn't have it.

    And a lot of that emerged, it comes through in the book, from the experience with her older sister, Rosemary.

  • Eileen McNamara:

    Well, Rosemary was born with mild intellectual disabilities. Her schoolwork is on file at the Kennedy Library. So it looked like she achieved about a fourth grade level in school.

    She was presented at court as a debutante in London. She made her way OK through the world, until she became a young woman. And then anger and apparent mental illness compounded her intellectual disabilities.

    And her father made a misguided decision, but I think probably a well-intentioned one. He thought a prefrontal lobotomy, which was experimental, but some of the literature said promising, would cure her.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Taking out some of her brain.

  • Eileen McNamara:

    And it didn't cure her. It left her incapacitated, unable to speak, unable to walk.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how did Eunice deal with that?

  • Eileen McNamara:

    I think that was the fuel that powered the engine that was Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

    Her sister was removed to an institution. The children were forbidden to see her, because the father thought that it wouldn't be good for Rosemary to be exposed to her very energetic and competitive siblings.

    So they erased her from their lives. And Eunice did it too. And I think there was some guilt that she was complicit in some way in letting Rosemary languish far from home.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But she went on to try to make up for that in a very big way, didn't she?

  • Eileen McNamara:

    She did.

    And it's ironic, when Joseph Kennedy lost his voice through a stroke in 1961, Eunice found hers. She brought Rosemary back to the heart of the family, because Joe was no longer able to object.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, of course, Eunice went on to found Special Olympics, to do other work for people with disabilities, and was always pushing.

  • Eileen McNamara:

    She pushed all her life with her brothers, because they were the public face of the family. Before Jack even took the oath of office, she got a commitment for him that he would create a presidential panel on mental retardation, what we then called intellectual disabilities.

    And she staffed it. She filled it with people with every kind of expertise. And the last piece of legislation Jack Kennedy ever signed was legislation that would deinstitutionalize those children.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you think her legacy is?

  • Eileen McNamara:

    I think her legacy is enormous.

    The Special Olympics is a piece of it. But the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development is named after Eunice Shriver now. It's because it didn't exist until she told Jack, the problems of children and pregnant women need the attention of the federal government.

    And not for the first or last time, Jack Kennedy listened to Eunice, because he knew, on issues she cared about, she knew what worked.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As you write, she kept pushing after that. I mean, after his presidency, she went on and was active until the very end of her life a few years ago.

  • Eileen McNamara:

    The very end of her life.

    Lowell Weicker tells a wonderful story. She died in the summer of 2009. And she called Lowell Weicker to her bedroom.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is the former senator from Connecticut.

  • Eileen McNamara:

    Yes, indeed.

    And harangued him, what are we going to do about these amendments to the Americans With Disabilities Act? Who do we have in Congress? Who's new that I need to get to know that we can push on these issues?

    Right to the very end of her life, she was working.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Eileen McNamara, thank you very much.

  • Eileen McNamara:

    Thanks for having me.

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