For a progressive and a sentimentalist, one of the advantages of living in the Boston television market has been its coverage of Senator Kennedy’s last public appearance. He was one of ours, and he did a lot of good for a lot of individuals and families here, apart from his many services to the welfare of all Americans. I’ve been glad to sniffle through many an anecdote from the people who came to witness the hearse carry Teddy’s casket from Hyannisport, through Boston’s Government Center and the North End streets where he first politicked, to lie in state at his brother’s JFK Library in Dorchester.
People like the couple whose son was killed in Iraq, and Kennedy not only sent a note of condolence, he found out the soldier’s father was having problems obtaining his citizenship — problems that magically disappeared within two weeks of Kennedy’s intervention. And when the couple started a scholarship fund to honor their son’s memory, Teddy sent a personal check. People like the Republican parents whose son’s last words from Iraq lamented the lack of decent body armour; they contacted Kennedy “despite our doubts” and the Senator successfully fought to change the Pentagon rules protecting Blackwater and its private-contractor ilk by denying civilian donations toward ‘non-approved’ equipment. “Teddy did more for us than any of the senators we contacted who voted for the war,” they said.
People like the 9/11 widow who’ll be standing with the Kennedy family overnight, at the coffin wake. It wasn’t just that he contacted her and the other families immediately, she said, or the “dozens of little things, stuff that was only important to us” that he’d done in the years since. “He walked me through those first terrible days, taught me how it was possible to go on, when I thought I would never get through it… He told me I could, and I knew I could trust him, because he’d had to — he’d done it himself.”
And then I made the mistake of looking at Andrew Sullivan’s blog, hosting the smug and disingenuous Hanna Rosin, whose back-handed ‘tribute’ to Teddy’s public service went beyond the usual Wingnut Welfare Wurlitzer “Chappaquiddick today, Chappaquiddick tomorrow, Chappaquiddick forever” sniping to “the bigger problem of the Kennedy women”:
“If they were lucky, like Eunice Kennedy Shriver, they managed to install themselves at the head of virtuous nonprofits—“charities,” we used to call them.” — Goodbye, Kennedy Women, Double X, August 26
Rosin is treating Eunice Kennedy Shriver the way she laments Joe Kennedy did — as a mannequin, a non-person whose highest ambition was to worm its way into a figurehead position. This is a grave and willful misunderstanding, which denigrates not only Mrs. Kennedy Shriver’s lifetime of hard work, but the worth of the Special Olympics and the Special Olympians.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver was not “lucky”, she was brave.
She worked just as hard and as long for her “virtuous nonprofit” as Teddy did in the Senate, starting in 1961 when she pressured her brother Jack into authorizing The President’s Committee on Mental Retardation, which developed into what is now Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development within the NIH. She was supposed to be another Barbara Bush, someone who’d be content supervising an appropriately large brood of future (male) politicians, a Junior League matron breaking her “fiercely competitive” golf and tennis matches at the country club with martini-and-cigarette lunches. But while she never challenged her father’s fierce chauvinism to the extent of pursuing political office herself, she never forgot how her older sister Rosemary had been traumatized, locked away, and lobotomized in a misguided attempt to “protect her from herself” — and to protect her family from the stigma of having produced a mental defective.
Over the last twenty years or so, there’s developed a certain willed historical oblivion over just how hard it was to be, or to bear, a “retarded” child in America in the 1960s. The unchallenged Social Eugenics bias taught in schools of medicine & social work since the 1890s mandated that the “best” treatment for such “defective” children was institutionalization, where the little unfortunates and their families would be protected from the stigma and social opprobrium natural to their pitiable condition. And since there was no hope of a cure, or even a meaningful life for the young victims, the diagnostic lines between “mongoloidism”, organic brain damage, autism, epilepsy, and even cerebral palsy were blurred — if the child was going to be warehoused until it died, hopefully before wasting too much of its family’s or the states resources, how much did an exact label matter? Things hadn’t progressed much since Jane Austen wrote of a family (much like her own) that “had the bad fortune to have a very stupid, troublesome son, and the good fortune to lose him before his twentieth year.” I was born in the mid-1950s, and I can remember the ladies in my blue-collar Irish-American parish discussing whether it was “fair” for Eunice to keep dragging up the “old scandal” of Rosemary’s tragedy — because it risked damaging the political & marital chances not only of Eunice’s own children, but of the Irish-Catholic tribe in general. I know people of my generation who were never permitted to meet, or sometimes even to know about, their “imperfect” siblings until another family crisis unveiled their existence. Just as adoptive parents were warned never to reveal that their child wasn’t “really” theirs, the parents of “defective” children were advised, “Put it in an institution. Tell the neighbors it died. It wouldn’t be fair to your other children, if you try to provide all the extra care and expense it’ll need.”
People today occasionally wonder, or complain, that “When I was growing up, there didn’t used to be so many special needs kids in every neighborhood.” Of course they don’t always use the polite “special needs”, because that phrase didn’t really exist a generation ago. There didn’t “used to be” so much mention of racist privilege or sexual harrassment or domestic violence, either — not because it didn’t exist, but because the concepts were so much an accepted part of everyday life that “we” didn’t have the words to describe them, even if we wanted or needed to. Changing the world to require, and accept, such a new vocabulary was a lifetime’s hard work for many, many people, a few of whom were powerful enough and prominent enough that we remember their names when honoring the work of all their unheralded fellows. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, despite Hanna Rosin’s attempt to reduce her, was never just a ‘Lady Bountiful presiding over an afternoon’s diversion for the little retards.’ She spent her life working hard, and encouraging (demanding) thousands of others to work just as hard, to give the forgotten and powerless a little more space in the world. And it is for her hard work and by the success she won, not for herself but for 3,000,000-and-counting people she never met, that she will be remembered. At its best, this was the real “Kennedy luck” — not that they were born rich and lived privileged, but that Teddy, Eunice, Jack, Bobby, and the rest of the clan sought out the hard work that would make a real difference in the world.