After attending a touching, heart-rending memorial 10 days ago via today’s ubiquitous Covid-19-free Zoom for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s 40-year-old daughter, Maeve McKean, and eight-year-old grandson, Gideon McKean, I joined many others in bemoaning the multiple tragedies that have befallen this accomplished American family.
Death is part of every family. It’s unavoidable. But, I wonder if a familial strain of recklessness dooms the Kennedy clan to avoidable hardships. It dogs this family in ways unfamiliar to most of us.
On Thursday, April 2, Maeve and her son got in a canoe on a windy day to chase a ball in the angry Chesapeake Bay. The canoe capsized. Maeve and her son vanished, found days later.
Was it pure hubris that motivated a mother and son to venture into unpredictable water to retrieve a ball? Was it the Kennedy ethic to live life to its fullest, caution be damned? Am I being unduly harsh?
When John Kennedy Jr. died in July 1999 in a plane accident, along with his wife and sister-in-law, in conditions that would have discouraged pilots more experienced than the son of a former U.S. president, I wondered then what drove this family, so committed to selfless public service, to self-destructive actions.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (KKKT) lost a brother in a skiing accident and another one to a drug overdose. Factor in the loss of her father, former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to assassination, as well as her uncle, President John F. Kennedy, and you can rightly say that this former lieutenant governor of Maryland has endured unimaginable tragedy.
It’s easy to question and criticize the choices made by God to take people—particularly ones who have so much to offer our dissonant world—in the youth or prime of their lives. To be fair, however, we humans may tempt our own fates through irresponsible behavior.
I know KKT (the typical acronym used for her) and like and admire her very much. She’s a wonderful person who has followed the family tradition of viewing public service as a noble undertaking. Though no longer in the public arena, she is an adjunct professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and senior Nitze fellow at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
My youngest daughter worked on KKT’s unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2002. Several years ago, I served on a state task force chaired by Kathleen studying how to provide retirement security for all Marylanders.
The Kennedy name and image were magical to my generation. Many of us reveled in the optimism and idealism typified by President Kennedy and his brother. The assassinations of JFK and Bobby Kennedy in 1963 and 1968, respectively, ruptured our innocence.
Add the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., also in 1968, and the divisiveness of the Vietnam War, and the world seemed grimmer and grubbier. Violence was our American signature.
Why did I spend two hours, along with 3,000 others, engaged in a somber loving tribute to a woman the same age as my youngest daughter and portrayed as a bright light devoted to global human rights, and an exuberant, athletic boy who was a year younger than my grandson?
Why was it so important to me during this already melancholy time in history?
Like many, I feel emotionally tied to a family blessed with the financial security and commitment to public service to make our world better and more humane. Recklessness, which I view as a disturbing nemesis, has cut short the lives of too many Kennedy clan members.
The family may view caution as an impediment to living life fully and fearlessly. The consequences may be deadly.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is a strong, intelligent and vibrant person. She will endure this terrible tragedy with grace and dignity as I observed during the memorial service on Zoom.
The Kennedys will move on, grieving another wrenching void. I’m praying for God’s solace and comfort.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.