Minutes after Wyoming's 15 votes vaulted him over the top at the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, John Kennedy arrived, under police escort, at the cottage that served as his political campaign center. As campaign chronicler Theodore White recounted, "Kennedy loped into the cottage with his light dancing step, as young and lithe as springtime. . . . He descended the steps of the split-level cottage where his brother Bobby and his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver were chatting, waiting for him."
The death Tuesday of 95-year-old Sargent Shriver
– who accomplished far more than any other presidential brother-in-law in American history
– was the final period on an era. Long departed are the political power brokers who also waited in the cottage to hail JFK as the Democratic presidential nominee (Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Ohio Gov. Mike DiSalle, Connecticut boss John Bailey, Pennsylvania Gov. David Lawrence) – the men who, in Teddy White's words, "represented the system of power that policed the industrial civilization of Northeast America."
With the deaths of Ted Kennedy
, counselor and speechwriter Ted Sorensen
and now Shriver, no one who celebrated with John Kennedy at his greatest moments of political triumph remains on this earth.
This is the human condition – inevitably the torch is passed to a new generation. Herodotus wrote that Xerxes, the Persian king, wept
on the eve of his invasion of Greece because he knew that every soldier in his vast army would someday be dead. Shelley captured a version of this sentiment in his poem, "Ozymandias of Egypt
For those with an appreciation of the sweep of history – or for journalists who treasure the shards of great events – there is something wrenching when the last witness to an epic event dies. That is true whether it is a veteran of the World War I trenches, a jokester at the Algonquin Round Table, or the brother-in-law who stood with Jack Kennedy on his big night.
As a boy who watched JFK's inauguration on a black-and-white television and remembers the 86-year-old Robert Frost struggling to read a poem in the bitter cold, I am undoubtedly overly emoting about the disappearance of the last traces of Camelot. Even though Sargent Shriver was afflicted with Alzheimer's in his final years, still how poignant that that last major link, that last strand of memory, was cut just two days before the 50th
anniversary of that inauguration.
My political persona is forever entwined with the Kennedy years from the soaring cadences of Ted Sorensen's words to the idealism embodied by Sarge Shriver's Peace Corps. And, yes, my career choice was shaped by Teddy White's ballad to the Kennedy campaign, "The Making of the President 1960."
The men who forged the New Frontier with JFK were the adults of 1960s political life for me – even if their vigor and their unsentimental pragmatism bristled with Cold War macho and pointed the way toward Vietnam. Forged by World War II (Shriver served in the Navy in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters), they brought a sense of honor and an old-fashioned concept of public service to their work in government. Not all their handiwork shimmers in historical memory (the Bay of Pigs invasion), but they tamed the Cold War, belatedly embraced the civil rights movement and (in Shriver's case) symbolized the liberal commitment to battling poverty.
Even if the TV footage from the 1960s is grainy and the suits that men (always men) wore along the corridors of power now look like Rat Pack retro, the Kennedy years marked the birth of modern politics. From harnessing the power of television to capitalizing on Kennedy's charisma, the campaign that Shriver helped direct was closer in many ways to Barack Obama than it was to Franklin Roosevelt. In contrast to the gifted amateurs who drafted both Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson in 1952, the 1960 Kennedy campaign marked the moment when running for president became professionalized.
What has vanished with Shriver and Sorensen (who died last October) are not the old-fashioned politics of frock coats and Fourth of July stem-winders on the village green. Instead, these men were our contemporaries – part of the political dialogue, in Sorensen's case, until the day he died. That is why it is so haunting that almost none are left who were actually there at the 1960 convention or backstage during the debates with Richard Nixon or were within earshot of John Kennedy as he declared on an icy day 50 years ago, "Ask not what your country can do for you . . ."
As the books are closed forever on the Kennedy years, those of us who were shaped by the experience – as seen through a TV set – have only our memories and the sobering awareness that we are now the adults of politics.
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