American tragedies with enduring fascination: Why the Kennedys still resonate

"The humanity of their story is what keeps us engaged," one Kennedy expert said.
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People walk past the street leading to the Kennedy compound Friday in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The death of Saoirse Kennedy Hill, one of Robert F. Kennedy's granddaughters, was a reminder the family has faced everyday heartbreaks and struggles.Charles Krupa / AP

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By Daniel Arkin

The grand but tragic saga of the Kennedy family has risen to the level of cultural mythology, cemented in public consciousness for generations and immortalized by countless films, books and television specials.

"Camelot" has become shorthand for the family's rarefied glamour and political might.

But the death of Saoirse Kennedy Hill, one of Robert F. Kennedy's granddaughters, was a reminder that America's preeminent dynasty was, at its core, a clan that has faced heartbreaks and struggles familiar to families across the country.

"The humanity of their story is what keeps us engaged," said J. Randy Taraborrelli, a journalist who has written four books about the Kennedy family and its legacy. "They have the mystique of the British royal family, but they're at one with the public and, in some ways, quite relatable."

Hill, who was one of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's 35 grandchildren, wrote candidly about her battle with depression and mental illness in a 2016 essay, describing "deep bouts of sadness that felt like a heavy boulder on my chest."

The New York Times, citing two people close to the family, reported that Hill died Thursday of an apparent overdose, just over two weeks after the 20th anniversary of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s death in a plane crash at 38. NBC News has not confirmed the Times report.

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The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert were era-defining traumas. In the decades since, the accidents and disasters that have claimed the lives of so many of their offspring show that no family — even the privileged and powerful — is impervious to misfortune, said Taraborrelli.

"We have watched this family over the decades, as so many of us watch relatives in our own families who struggle with emotional problems or substance abuse issues," said Taraborrelli. "We peer behind the scenes of their wealthy lifestyle, and we see, for all the advantages they have, tragedy can still happen."

Robert Kennedy's family, in particular, has been repeatedly rocked by tragedy. Michael Kennedy, one of the late attorney general's sons, was killed in a skiing accident in Colorado on New Year's Eve in 1997, when he was 39. David Anthony Kennedy, another son, died of a drug overdose in Florida in 1984, when he was 28.

Americans who are not even old enough to have lived through President Kennedy's tenure in the White House are nonetheless "drawn to a family that has contributed so much and also, like so many of us, suffered so much," said Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist who wrote a book about the 35th president's enduring legacy.

For younger Americans who came of age amid mounting political polarization in the culture and increasingly bitter partisan squabbles in Washington, the Kennedy family has long been an example of the importance of public service and civic responsibility — "cross-generational role models," as Taraborrelli put it.

"It is hard to find a political dynasty more important than the Kennedys," said Michael Beschloss, NBC News' presidential historian. He added that many of the living family members remain creditably active in public life, pointing to the examples of Obama-era diplomat Caroline Kennedy and Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy III.

Patrick J. Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman and the second son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, has spoken about struggling with drug abuse as a young man. After he chose not to run for re-election in 2010, he became a leading advocate for substance abuse and mental health treatment.

In a tweet Friday, the former congressman paid his respects: "Saoirse will always remain in our hearts. She is loved and will be deeply missed."

Taraborrelli, the author, said he hopes that Hill's untimely death puts more public attention on mental health and addiction issues.

"Hopefully her death will not be in vain," Taraborrelli said.