the Kennedy Legacy: JFK’s Inauguration Anniversary & remembering Sargent Shriver
For a while this month, you were forgiven if you saw the banners and towers of Camelot appear out of a frigid mist again, or perhaps Excalibur rising out of the icy waters of the Potomac, accompanied by the music of Yo-Yo Ma or Bono.
On Thursday of last week, the John F. Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts began a month-long celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy as the 35th President of the United States. On this particularly dry and wintry day, you could see the living breaths of great men in Washington.
Grand stories and occasions were once again fondly recalled the brash, idealistic beginnings of the Kennedy era, Washington’s own Camelot. However, it collided—and then folded into—the loss of one of the last of this era’s remaining giants, Sargent Shriver.
The Kennedy Center kicked off its series of special events with a gala concert that, if reports are correct, had the feel of an actual inauguration, with the presence of the sitting president, world-class singers, musicians, conductors, movie stars and performers in attendance alongside a flock of city mayors and politicians.
Only a day later, at the nearby Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown, a wake was held for Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy by marriage to the late Eunice Shriver, JFK’s sister. Shriver embodied the knightly quality of the Kennedy clan, if not in name than in the best of spirits: its call to service, and to use power for the betterment of others.
His long and useful life of legacy was recalled by his children, presidents, governors, and by the remnants of the family that bears the Kennedy name.
Shriver’s many grandchildren are generations removed from the occasion 50 years ago when the youthful president laid down a mission for the country to: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Everything seemed possible with this president.
In the course of the passing years, Shriver and his wife answered that call. Sarge was called to take up the leadership of the Peace Corps. Then, unable to withstand the importuning of Lyndon Baynes Johnson, he led the War On Poverty. Eunice Shriver would create the Special Olympics.
A refined cultural heritage, full of virtuoso artists playing at the White House (itself redecorated with whispery flair by Jackie Kennedy) was one of the hallmarks of the Camelot years. Its members were remembered and marketed as highly intelligent, able, worldly, literate, and full of confidence and talent: an army of book-schooled and war-formed soldiers and their companions. Introducing his cabinet in the White House, JFK said that there had never been such an assemblage of talent there since Thomas Jefferson dined there alone.
This was a week when folks remembered all the brothers, but especially JFK and the army of celebrities that rushed to Washington in the middle of a snowstorm, Frank Sinatra among them. They remembered Jackie and John, who only months before lived in Georgetown.
Their daughter Caroline, thin as her late mother, was in recently in town to speak at the National Archives’ unveiling of the Online Archive of the Collection of the JFK Library. Writers got a chance to see some of the trove of material now available with a push of a button. It was strange seeing her with her husband, watching clips of her small, young self, playing with her father. “All my life,” she said, “people have told me that my father changed their lives. They decided to give back to their community or serve our country because, for the first time, someone asked them to. President Kennedy inspired a generation, and that is why, 50 years later, his legacy still resonates.”
Sargent Shriver certainly lived out that call to service in the flesh and in the deed.
But politics and power often tend to make men falter and fall to temptation, and the Kennedy histories suffered twin blows of tragedy and scandal. Shriver too took some glancing blows: the ignominious defeat as George McGovern’s second-choice running mate, and a half-hearted attempt at a presidential run.
But these were small setbacks when compared to the tragic deaths of the JFK, Robert, and John Jr, and revelations and scandals that seemed to plague the family as chronicled by historians.
The Kennedy family, and the trinity of brothers, seemed to have incandescence, a magnet-like charisma and lore that enabled the legend to survive and overcome raffish and rough detail. A spotlight occasion like the 50th anniversary of the JFK Inauguration revives the legend from a time when we had no hint of what the future held, and a little less of the savory details from the past. Poetry, music, hope and challenge were in the air that day, and romance and glitter were on display that night at the gala balls; a restless president walked the streets of Georgetown.
Shriver burned with his own light in the service of his family, but foremost of his countrymen. “My God, Sarge was such a good man,” Bill Clinton said at his funeral, almost unable to contain himself. “Can you believe how good he was? My God, nobody’s that good. You listen to the story of his life and you feel eight inches tall.” Everybody laughed, as they should at some point in an Irish funeral.
At the Kennedy Center, Yo-Yo Ma played, and the NSO played a work of newly minted music, and Caroline Kennedy’s children recited the poem that Robert Frost had written for JFK’s inaugural, titled “The Gift Outright.”
At the Shriver funeral in Potomac, his sons and daughter carried the coffin alongside son-in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger, who probably could have carried it himself. There were clips of a frail Shriver, who had suffered from Alzheimer’s, waving goodbye to the car carrying the coffin of his wife who died last year. People made music here too—people like Bono and Vanessa Williams.
The times of January were a wisp. A wind of Camelot days and Camelot lives. We remembered everything of our youth in a flash, when they were right here among us, demanding us to think and dream and do great things for mankind. We thought we could, and sometimes we did.
For sure, Sargent Shriver did.
For details and information about the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Center’s “The Presidency of John F. Kennedy: a 50th Anniversary Celebration,” visit the Kennedy Center online