I don't normally blog politics (especially American politics), but I do blog faulty reasoning, and so I will take the occasion to address an issue that surrounds the Kennedys, especially when it comes to Orthodox Jews.
The issue at hand is the famous "Kennedy Curse." In the threads on YWN and VIN, commentators once again brought up "the curse."
There are various stories of how the curse started. All the stories (or at least the stories that originate from the Jewish world) involve a famous rabbi who was either insulted or rebuffed by Joseph (or Rose) Kennedy. They were then cursed by that Rabbi that their family should suffer for it.
Rose Kennedy managed to live a long life and as three of her sons and one of her daughters predeceased her, the going rumor was that she was cursed that all of her children should die before her. Her death in 1995 ended that aspect of the legend.
Truth to tell, the story has all the earmarks of an urban legend. The name of the rabbi who cursed the Kennedys changes from one telling to the next (it's most often mentioned as the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe -- but not always), as does why the curse was originally pronounced. In addition, there is no (or at least not to my knowledge) firm documented source describing the origin of the curse. In short, it sounds all too much like an urban legend.
But putting that aside, let's ask the question -- is the curse real? The Kennedys, as we all know, have lost quite a few family members in high-profile deaths. The fact is that the average age of death of the eight deceased Kennedy children (Jean is still alive) is just under 60 years -- a rather low figure in today's day and age. Of course, even that number is misleading because the average life expectancy was much lower when some of the Kennedy children died long ago.
While it's true that some Joseph and Rose Kennedy's nine children have died young, let's consider for the moment that all of them survived to adulthood. The Kennedy children are of the same generation as my grandparents. All four of my grandparents were born in the United States. Of the four of them, three lost siblings as children. I think that if most people who had grandparents growing up in the United States at that time do a little research, they will find that many (if not most) of them lost siblings during childhood. Infant and child mortality in those days was quite high and, unfortunately, losing a child was not as uncommon as it is today -- especially in families with a lot of children such as the Kennedys. So, right off the bat, I'd have to say that the fact that all of Joseph and Rose's children made it to adulthood shows that they were doing far better than many other families of the time.
That being said, let's look at the children. The Kennedys had nine children:
- Joseph Jr. -- died in World War II, aged 29
- John -- shot in Dallas in 1963, aged 46
- Rosemary -- lobotomized and institutionalized, died at age 86
- Kathleen -- died in a plane crash at age 28
- Euncie -- died about two weeks ago at age 88
- Patricia -- died in 2006 at age 82
- Robert -- shot in San Francisco in 1968, aged 42
- Jean -- still living today, aged 81
- Edward -- died yesterday, aged 77
Of the nine children, four failed to see their fiftieth birthday (although, of the five that did, all reached at least 77 years of age). One more, Rosemary, spent almost all of her life in an institution.
But let's look at the four who died young and examine the circumstances of their deaths:
Joesph Jr. was a student at Harvard Law when World War II began. He left Harvard a year early and took officer and pilot training in the Navy. He piloted 25 combat missions during World War II and was eligible to return home.
Instead, he volunteered for a highly dangerous mission which entailed flying an explosive-laden plane with a skeleton crew which would then parachute out of the plane before detonation. It was on this mission that he was killed.
Three Kennedy sons served in World War II (Edward was only twelve when the war ended) and two survived. Many families lost sons in the war and some lost more than one child (the Sullivans famously lost five on a single ship). In that respect, I would not say that the Kennedys were cursed any more than any other family that lost a son in combat during World War II.
John Kennedy went on to become the 35th President of the United States -- the youngest man ever to be elected to the office. He served from January 1961 until his assassination in 1963.
During the course of our nation's history, 43 different men have served as President of the United States. Of those eight did not leave the office alive -- four of them were killed by assassin's bullets and the other four became ill and died. Another two recent presidents (Ford and Reagan) survived assassination attempts. In other words, about 19% of the people who took the office did not survive. Clearly, being President of the United States is a dangerous job. Aside from the enormous pressures of the job, there are always people who will want to kill the president -- from foreign terrorists to partisan nutcases (on both sides) to people who are just plain kooks. The upshot of all this is that the job of President is a high-risk occupation and as with all high-risk occupations, the fact that someone dies in that job is not the sign of a curse.
Kathleen married the Marquess of Hartington (and the heir to the dukedom of Devonshire) in 1944. She married against the will of her family and aside from Joseph Jr., no one in the family attended her wedding. Sadly, the Marquess was killed in World War II after only four months of marriage. She ended up becoming involved with a married gentleman of the British peerage who was in the process of divorcing his wife with the intent to marry him once his divorce was final. That marriage never happened because Kathleen died in a plane crash in France in 1948.
The fourth of the Kennedy children to die before their seventy fifth birthday was Robert. Robert was the junior senator from New York in 1968 and was running for the Democratic nomination for President. He had just won the California primary when he was assassinated by a young Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan. Robert Kennedy was a high profile individual (former Attorney General, Senator from New York and candidate for President) and, as such, was, like John, a high profile target.
The other five Kennedy children all survived until at least 77 years of age. Of the nine children of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, seven married and six had children -- John had two surviving children, Eunice had five, Patricia had four, Robert had eleven, Jean had four and Edward had three. In total Rose and Joseph Kennedy had twenty nine grandchildren, most of whom have since married and had kids of their own.
In addition, the Kennedys became one of the premiere political families in the United States. Three of the Kennedy children became Senators and one became the President. Their grandchildren include a former Lt. Governor, at least two members of the House of Representatives and other political positions. For a family that has been cursed, they have been tremendously successful.
There are people who will point to other misfortunes that the extended Kennedy family has borne: the skiing death in 1997 of Michael Kennedy, the rape accusation against William Kennedy Smith, the car accident in 1969 that ended Edward's chances of becoming President and the airplane crash that ended the life of John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1999.
I'm not at all certain that these events are out of the ordinary for a family as large as the Kennedys and that engage in the activities that the Kennedys engage in. Many families have unfortunately lost people in skiing accidents and many families tragically lose people in airplane accidents. However, in most cases, unless the person is famous (or belongs to a famous family) these events are usually unreported or forgotten shortly thereafter. I firmly believe that if you sample other families as numerous as the Kennedys that engage in similar activities, you will probably find similar results.
In short, the Kennedys have suffered tragedy over the years -- but I'm not convinced that it's so different from the tragedies that another family might have faced with the same numbers and similar circumstances.