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Once again, the youngest brother bears a family's sorrows

By David M. Shribman, Globe Staff, 07/22/99

WASHINGTON - He was presiding over the Senate in Washington when the news came that his brother, the president, was dead in Dallas. He was campaigning in San Francisco when his other brother, Bobby, was shot in Los Angeles. He was awaiting a niece's wedding in Hyannis Port when his nephew, John Jr., died as his plane plunged into the sea off Martha's Vineyard.

Edward M. Kennedy sought a Senate leadership position and couldn't hold it. He sought the presidency and lost a bitter nomination struggle. But the job he didn't seek is the one he can't shake: He is the Kennedy family patriarch.

In a family beset by fateful accidents, here is one to contemplate - the ascendancy of the youngest brother, playing the role of family leader longer, and better, than anyone else, through more heartbreak, more anguish, more tragedy than anyone could have contemplated.

For the three decades leading to 1968 - when they were young and Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. was the giant in the family circle; as they grew older and young Joe was being groomed for greatness; as they tasted real political power when Jack was a vice presidential candidate, then the Democratic nominee, and finally the president; as the grief over the assassination lingered and Bobby's political passion sharpened - through all that time, no one looked to the youngest brother for leadership.

No one, especially after the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick in 1969, the breakup of his marriage to Joan Kennedy, and his reputation for high living.

No one suspected he'd be the big oak in the forest, the one to lean on, the one to bear the sorrow and the sadness.

Now, after accidents and deaths and scandals, several involving Senator Kennedy himself, the astonishing has become the commonplace. Even his most ardent foes acknowledge the role that Edward Moore Kennedy has come to play in the family.

''It seems that no family should have to endure the level of tragedy that has befallen the Kennedys,'' said Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican. ''I will say to the senator from Massachusetts: America mourns with you.''

Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, pleaded from the floor: ''Senator Kennedy, please - if there is any way - let us help you carry your grief, if you grow tired. You and your family have given our nation so much. Let us - if we can - give something back to you.''

But the family that has given so much has been through so much. The senator, alone among the family members, has witnessed every tragic turn. Richard Drayne, who served as Kennedy's press secretary in the 1960s and early 1970s and, until his death in 1987, remained close to the senator, once related that when Joseph P. Kennedy died in 1969, the sole surviving son took a sleeping bag and kept vigil in the room at the ambassador's Hyannis Port home where the casket remained until the funeral.

As his mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, approached death in January 1995, all the family members gathered at the senator's house. When she passed away, he brought people together, holding them together in part by holding them.

Though he appears stout and stout-hearted, striding bravely to a boat yesterday that took him to the ocean site of his nephew's death, Senator Kennedy has spent the week in silent contemplation, breaking only to visit Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg in New York and then returning to his home in the family compound, sitting alone.

He reached Los Angeles hours after Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot, and after all the life-saving efforts expired, he stood, alone, in the bathroom of the room where his brother's body lay, leaning against the sink, a look on his face beyond agony, his mouth twisted and open, a scene so stark that an observer couldn't bear to look more than a moment or two. It was the private grief of a public man.

Along with the grief has come responsibility. He has been - everyone in the Kennedy circle unfailingly uses this phrase - a surrogate father for the two children of John Kennedy and the 11 children of Robert Kennedy, serving as godfather to several - and as godfather to Caroline's daughter, Rose.

Kennedy staff members recall that over the years, all of them would visit the Kennedy office on Capitol Hill, many serving as interns, the remaining brother insisting that they all come to understand the kind of work their fathers did in the Senate. Sometimes, when they were young, the senator would play hide-and-seek with them.

Every summer the senator would take many of them on camping trips to Western Massachusetts, a tradition that became so revered that not long ago Rory, whose wedding was postponed Saturday by this summer's tragedy, organized a camping trip to revisit those days, and so the whole brood retraced the route, and their roots.

When his son, Edward M. Kennedy Jr., developed cancer, it was the senator who had to tell him that he would lose his leg. He was with his son when he went into surgery and saw him come out, and then he whipped off to Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown and walked niece Kathleen Kennedy down the aisle when she married David Townsend.

He kissed her on the steps when she came out, then returned to the hospital. He learned how to give injections every four hours so he could bring young Teddy home a day early. That knowledge would come in handy, permitting the senator to give emergency injections after son Patrick's severe asthma attacks.

Patrick, now a congressman from Rhode Island, began to describe him as his night nurse. He is, in truth, night nurse to an entire family. Right now he is on duty again.

This story ran on page A10 of the Boston Globe on 07/22/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.


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