Finding strength amid the despair

May 13, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

We hate talking about it. We fear saying something awkward or intrusive. We think we'll only make it worse by acknowledging it, so we fall silent.

"I think, in large part," Kathleen Kennedy Townsend says, "we don't have a culture that knows how to deal with death."

Townsend, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, is, of course, sadly expert on the subject of death. When she was 12, her uncle was killed; when she was 16, her father. That these intimates were President John F. Kennedy and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy is something that is a well-known part of her biography, if not necessarily something that she speaks extensively about in public.

But tomorrow, Townsend is scheduled to speak at Sol Levinson & Brothers funeral home in Pikesville, which for the past 10 years has hosted a lecture series on death, dying and bereavement as a memorial to one of its partners, Irvin B. Levinson, who died in 1998.

Her speech is titled "The Awful Grace of God: How I Search for Wisdom in the Face of Death." The reference is to one of the most extraordinary moments in modern American politics, the evening of April 4, 1968, when her father, carrying on with a previously scheduled campaign event in Indianapolis, announced to a mostly black crowd that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.

As the crowd gasped in shock, and with other cities on the verge of erupting in rioting, Kennedy soothed his audience, calling for unity and compassion rather than divisiveness and hatred, remembering his own emotions after his brother's assassination and quoting a favorite passage from Aeschylus: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

Two months later, Robert Kennedy would be dead, felled by an assassin himself. For many, that would also be the day when what RFK stood for - an end to the Vietnam War, racial reconciliation on the home front - would also die.

But for his oldest daughter Kathleen, who surely had more to despair than the rest of us, it was instead a day to begin the path toward that wisdom her father spoke about. Maybe not immediately, but eventually.

"It takes time to absorb all these lessons," says Townsend, now 56.

Townsend deflects more personal questions, choosing not to revisit how she learned of her father's death - she was back home in school at the time, while he and her mother were campaigning in California. Rather, she speaks about how she took to heart the example he set, when his brother was assassinated. Shortly thereafter, he wrote her a note, telling her that as the oldest Kennedy grandchild, she had "a particular responsibility" to be kind and to work for her country.

"I saw how my father reacted to his own brother's death. He did not react in bitterness or with revenge," she says. "He was very, very sad, but you had to go on. You had to be kind to your family. You had to keep working.

"That was a clear path to me on what I had to do when my own father died," Townsend says. "You can retreat and be devastated. Or you can transform it into wisdom."

That summer, she went to work on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, where she helped build a science center.

Today, she teaches at Georgetown University, serves on a number of boards and, last year, wrote a book, Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way. She has been in the news lately as a superdelegate - she still supports Hillary Clinton, although her mother, her uncle, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, and cousins Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Maria Shriver are all in Barack Obama's camp. "She deserves three more weeks" of primary contests is all Townsend will say on that matter.

Still, her father's legacy hovers over this campaign, 40 years later. His image, in a sepia-toned photograph, looks down from every newsstand: Vanity Fair has a cover story on him this month, calling his "The Last Good Campaign" in a pointed rebuke of the current one.

For his daughter, the public spotlight that shone on her family, even during their most tragic, private moments, is not something to bemoan, but to accept and even welcome.

"In many people's cases, when someone dies, they die in obscurity," she says. "You survive the loss alone.

"The blessing I had [is], hardly a day goes by that someone doesn't say to me, your father got me involved in politics, or I met him in Washington, he was a great listener," Townsend says. "I was fortunate. His spirit is living with us."


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