12/03/2010 05:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Last Kennedy: End of an Epoch?

The 112th Congress convenes January 3, 2011.

The day before Rhode Island congressman Patrick J. Kennedy will enter private life, marking the first time in sixty-four years a Kennedy will no longer be a member of either the United States House of Representatives or the Senate, and by that absence the congressional story of America's greatest political family will close -- or will it?

It began, this extraordinary narrative of one family's commitment to public office, with the election in 1946 of John F. Kennedy to the United States House of Representatives from Massachusetts' 11th Congressional District. From the day Mr. Kennedy, a true American war hero, was sworn in as a member of Congress to the day Patrick Kennedy departs, neither chamber has been without a Kennedy.

Beginning with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the other family members who have served in Congress are Edward Moore Kennedy, Robert Francis Kennedy, Joseph Patrick Kennedy II, and Patrick Joseph Kennedy. With Congressman Kennedy's retirement, the five will have served 93 years in Congress -- 34 years in the House of Representatives and 62 in the Senate.

If you add John F. Kennedy's three years as president, Robert F. Kennedy's four years as attorney general, Jean Kennedy Smith's five years as ambassador to Ireland, and Joseph P, Kennedy's two years as ambassador of England, you have 107 years of Kennedy family service to the United States (not counting other family members who have served in local and state government and the U.S. military; not least, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., who was killed when his bomber exploded over the English Channel in World War II).

By contrast, in congressional years of service, the other two great American political families, the Adams and Bush families, served 21 years -- 17 for John Quincy Adams and four for George H.W. Bush.

When you weigh the Kennedy family's commitment to America, the tragic loss of two brothers by assassination and one in battle, you have a record of public service and sacrifice unprecedented in our history.

If you said their story is the fabric upon which fiction is woven, you would be wrong. No credible writer of fiction or film creator would suggest so credulous a story line. That it happens to be true is all the more striking.

But does Congressman Kennedy becoming Citizen Kennedy mean it's over, that no Kennedy will ever again answer a roll call in the House or Senate? Or, for the people of Massachusetts, did Senator Ted Kenny's death end the family's service in elective office to the Commonwealth?

To draw that conclusion would be unwise -- because the Kennedys are many and their talent is as undeniable as their commitment to public service is unimpeachable. They, like that of their storied family, know their first duty is to country and others.

It is a family of remarkable resiliency -- astonishing, really -- that never has allowed tragedy to either break their spirits or shadow their future.

When Bobby Kennedy had been dead 25-years Tom Brokaw of NBC News interviewed his widow, Ethel Kennedy. He asked whether she thought how the future might have been different had her husband lived? She famously told Mr. Brokaw, "Kennedys don't do wouldofs, couldofs, or shouldofs."

The Kennedys are drawn by the hope that no matter how deep and dark the valley of past experiences, broad, sunlit uplands await. They share Bobby Kennedy's belief, "Our future may be beyond our vision, but it is not beyond our control."

The question of whether another Kennedy will serve in Congress is not a family preoccupation. The family is simply too busy living lives of public service to fret over a Kennedy absence in the House or Senate; or to allow that absence to define their commitment to the commonweal.

The children of John and Bobby and Ted and Eunice and Pat and Jean and their children and grandchildren are all involved in public service. Whatever one's feelings about the Kennedys, any decent person cannot help but be impressed by the roll call of continuing allegiance to the people to America -- and beyond our shores.

If you begin with Robert and Ethel Kennedy's 11 children alone, you find Maryland's former lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, writing books and lecturing on issues of social justice around the world; Joseph P. Kennedy II, after 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, heading Citizens Energy, which provides low coast heating to poor families in New England; Kerry Kennedy running the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Justice and Human Rights; while Rory Kennedy, the youngest, is a film maker, whose documentaries on the lives of poor people, have received critical acclaim.

Of course, there is Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, President and Mrs. Kennedy's daughter, who drew a salary of $1 a year while fully engaged in helping to save New York City's public schools, and Teddy Kennedy Jr., who is devoted to working with the physically challenged; a cause for which he is passionate, having lost a leg to bone cancer when he was a boy of 12.

And then there are the Shrivers, the children of Ambassador Sargent Shriver and his late wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Their daughter, Maria Shriver, is the first lady of California. Her brother Bobby is mayor of Santa Monica. Another brother, Tim, heads Special Olympics (founded by his mother), while Mark Shriver, who served eight years in the Maryland House of Delegates, now leads Save the Children. In addition, the children of Ambassador Jean Smith are deeply involved in assisting The International Organization for the Arts and Disability (VSA).

There is also the next generation of Kennedys, with Joseph Kennedy III, serving as deputy district attorney in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, while his twin brother, Matthew, works for the Treasury Department in Washington, DC. Maeve McKean, whose mother is Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, also works in Washington, for Health and Human Services (and whose husband, David McKean, is a San Diegan).

For that generation of Americans, men and women first drawn to civic involvement by President Kennedy and later by Bobby, the absence of a Kennedy in Congress will bring remembrance of things past; the brothers who died in service to America and the certain knowledge their heartbreaking fate made the world a lesser place, but the family's shining example does not counsel contemplation but rather continuation in the forever challenge to right the world's wrongs.

What Pericles said to the Athenians may be said of the Kennedys, "We do not imitate, but are a model to others."


George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader, was a press aide to Bobby Kennedy in the presidential campaign of 1968