Devoted guardian of father's memory RFK: Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend talks about the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy, who died 30 years ago today.

June 06, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Weary and short of time, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend rehearsed out loud her final speech of the day as she hurried into Washington. Her voice trailed off. She didn't like the sound of what she was saying.

She scratched out a few sentences in her prepared remarks. Then, as she stared out the car window, the right words came to her, words she knows by heart, the words of her father.

"Moral courage," she said a half-hour later at an Israeli tribute to her father, Robert F. Kennedy, "is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. But it is the one essential quality for those who seek to change a world that yields so painfully to change."

For Maryland's lieutenant governor, it was just one of many moments this week in which she would invoke her father's ideals, his moral sensibility, his eloquence.

As the eldest of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's 11 children, and perhaps the closest to her father, she found herself repeatedly asked to articulate his legacy for the 30th anniversary of his assassination, which falls today.

Her whirlwind week included interviews with CNN's Larry King, Fox TV's Catherine Crier and other national television shows, a remembrance ceremony by the Israeli government, an address to the Democratic Leadership Council in Washington and a Kennedy family luncheon in Boston with President Clinton as host.

Today, she will go to her father's grave at Arlington National Cemetery to grieve and remember his death, just as his dream of the presidency appeared attainable, when she was 16.

But tomorrow, Townsend will return to public life in Maryland, as she and fellow Democrat Gov. Parris N. Glendening seek re-election in what promises to be a hard-fought race.

In father's footsteps

She is the first woman in the Kennedy family to hold elective office, and if successful in the coming months, she will be the only one of her siblings to remain in politics. Brother Joseph P. Kennedy II is quitting Congress; last year, he dropped his bid to become governor of Massachusetts after his former wife wrote a book sharply critical of their marriage. Two brothers have died, and the other children include lawyers, an environmental activist and a documentary filmmaker.

It's not merely in her career choice, however, that the 46-year-old Townsend is following in her father's footsteps with an unswerving sureness of purpose.

Like her father, Townsend constantly preaches the importance of a civic-minded public. She worked for eight years to make community service a high school graduation requirement in Maryland. Once in office, she created a "character education" program for schoolchildren.

Her earliest memories are of her father as the crime-fighting crusader taking on union corruption in U.S. Senate hearings. As lieutenant governor, she started the "Hot Spot" program, in which police and parole officers make house calls and keep in touch with community leaders in high-crime areas. She also has pushed for more laws on domestic violence.

"My father would hate to think that his legacy was one of purely lost opportunity," she told the Democratic Leadership Council on Thursday morning. "He always taught me that opportunities are made, not found."

Heroic vision

Roz Goldner has been a friend since Townsend moved to Maryland in 1984 with her husband, David, a professor at St. John's College in Annapolis. Goldner said Townsend's vision of her father is heroic, formed at "the high point of his career."

"He was a very strong influence on her life," she said. "I think he instilled in her his concern for people, his dedication to public service."

Not surprisingly, Townsend is a devoted guardian of her father's memory, as made clear in her string of interviews and public appearances over the past week.

In an era of tell-all TV, she was remarkably earnest and polite, avoiding tears or any reference to Kennedy family scandals. When Larry King asked her at a taping Tuesday night to recount how she learned of her father's death, she laid a hand on his arm. She preferred to talk about her father's life, she said. And though it's been only a few months since her brother Michael NTC died in a ski accident, she refused to dwell on any family tragedy.

"It's a little indulgent for someone as fortunate as I," she told King. "Obviously, there's a sense of great sadness, but bitterness? No. We weren't taught bitterness."

Every so often during the week, she recalled cherished moments from her childhood: current events quizes at the dinner table at Hickory Hill, the family home in McLean, Va.; touch football games; sailing trips; and the day she outraced her father on the ski slopes and engraved "KBD" -- "Kathleen Beat Daddy" on her skis. But she wanted most to describe her father's legacy.

She found herself reaching for quotes from her father; she has a loose-leaf binder full of his favorite sayings.

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