In 1964, Robert F. Kennedy offered a famous tribute to his late brother at the Democratic National Convention quoting a Robert Frost poem that President John F. Kennedy often applied to himself: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” More than a half-century later, with the loss of Robert Kennedy’s granddaughter Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean, whose body was recovered Monday evening, and great-grandson Gideon Joseph Kennedy McKean, who was recovered Wednesday afternoon, those words seem fitting. Maeve McKean was not just a descendant of what many still regard as the royal family of American politics but, like her mother, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, hers was a life devoted to public service. A life of promises, of devotion, of belief in making the world a better place.
That sounds corny, doesn’t it? In this age of cynicism, in this culture of celebrity worship, of heightened partisanship and Washington dysfunction and certainly while a global pandemic rages and the man in the White House dithers and boasts, attacks the press and expects governors to offer tribute or risk getting proper medical aid. In times like these, idealism may be viewed as just another commodity, another angle, another narrative. But many Americans feel a transcendent kinship with the Kennedy family, not simply because they are well-known, not because of their wealth. But because they stood for something, for standing up for the disenfranchised and downtrodden. They believed in paying any price, bearing any burden, meeting any hardship, supporting any friend, opposing any foe “to assure the survival and success of liberty,” as President Kennedy so well articulated at his inauguration. The torch was passed to a new generation and that flame of idealism still burns in this land, if not as brightly as perhaps it once did.
Maeve McKean wasn’t especially famous and her son was just eight years old. But she had already served in the Peace Corps having taught English and AIDS awareness to teens in a rural village in Mozambique, having lived in a tiny hut without electricity or running water. She went to law school. She worked as a public health and human rights lawyer and, most recently, as executive director of Georgetown University’s Global Health Initiative. Ironically, one of the focuses of that program has been on addressing pandemic threats. A woman who fought infectious disease outbreaks died in the midst of one under the most innocuous of circumstances: She and her son had been playing Friday afternoon in the backyard of her mother’s waterfront home in Shady Side. Their kick ball had landed in the water. They took out a canoe to retrieve it. High winds pushed them out to open waters. Their overturned canoe was discovered hours later.
Yes, the Kennedy family knows tragedy. They have experienced it in many forms from assassinations on down. Their fame seems to come with a horrifying price including gawkers and gossipers, stalkers and security threats. But for many of them, Maryland is their home. It’s not Massachusetts, of course, but from Shrivers to Townsends, it’s been a welcoming place. Perhaps that’s because we don’t get starry-eyed over celebrated political figures so easily in the shadow of Washington, D.C. They can be regular folk or they can, as Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, run for governor of the state. She lost that 2002 race, but not her commitment to public service. She, too, had promises to keep and has remained active in teaching, as a member of non-profit boards and in progressive causes.
We wish we could make better sense of a world where good people die young, where the innocent are taken for no better reason than perhaps a momentary lapse in judgment. Times like these are for clergy to find the higher truths, not necessarily for newspaper editorial boards and their more earthly concerns. But we do know this much: Our hearts go out to the family and friends of this mother and son, these blood relatives of a beloved president and should-have-been president. We ache for your loss. We grieve that more tragedy had to come your way. But we also celebrate and are grateful for Maeve McKean as someone who made a difference in this life. We need more like her. Now more than ever. God bless them both.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.