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I came away from “Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed The World,” deeply conflicted about its subject.

“Eunice” is a new biography of Eunice Kennedy Shriver by Eileen McNamara, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for the Boston Globe. (I got an advance copy of the book because a good friend of mine is a lifelong friend of Eileen’s; I’ve met her once, liked her enormously, and was thrilled to get a chance to read “Eunice” before it was published.) Eunice Kennedy Shriver was far more than just a sister to a president and two US Senators, and the wife of Sargent Shriver, who founded the Peace Corps during the Kennedy administration; McNamara’s premise is that she, in fact, may have the most lasting legacy of all the Kennedys because of her work on behalf of people with intellectual and emotional disabilities, which led to her founding of the Special Olympics.

The Special Olympics, which essentially started in her Maryland backyard out of Kennedy Shriver’s concerns that intellectually challenged young people - the mentally retarded, in the parlance of the day - need the opportunity to play and compete in athletics. It has grown into an enormous enterprise, international in scope, attracting thousands of athletes to each games and raising the profile of this onetime ignored community.

In pondering the conundrum that was Eunice Kennedy Shriver, I found myself wondering if she succeeded in her efforts on behalf of the intellectually challenged because of her family, or despite it; much of her passion and commitment can be traced to her sister, Rosemarie, who suffered from this malady; Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. at one point had her lobotomized as a form of treatment, and when that didn’t work, essentially banished her from the family never to be talked or thought about again. It was only after the senior Kennedy suffered a debilitating stroke that she felt free to reconnect with her sister and draw her back into the family circle.

There is no debating the fact that Kennedy Sr. was a bastard - manipulative, unfaithful, and ambitious for himself and his sons. (Not his daughters, though; there was a hierarchy in the Kennedy family, and the boys were on top.) Rose Kennedy also was no prize - distant, cold and seemingly more focused on the Catholic Church than on her children. It is hard to figure out how any of the Kennedy kids emerged from such a family emotionally intact, and “Eunice” makes the case that the daughters actually were more whole than the sons, and even in the end less subservient to their father’s wishes and demands.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a contradiction in terms, although maybe just when viewed through a modern prism. She was committed to the less fortunate, and yet she certainly enjoyed the privileges that her family’s wealth and connections afforded her, and sometimes seemed oblivious to how unique they made her. Her dedication to the Catholic Church, an institution that we now know had some serious flaws, seems strangely anachronistic and maybe a little naive. There also was a willingness to ignore the personal flaws - and there were many - of her brothers that seems out of step with her intelligence, but, to be fair, in synch with the kind of blind family loyalty inculcated in her brothers and sisters since birth.

One thing that I did get from the book with was a real liking for Sargent Shriver, who seems like a good guy with a deep love for his wife and family, and who had all the best motivations for his years of public service; “Eunice” made me want to find a good Sargent Shriver bio.

While I came away from “Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed The World,” deeply conflicted about its subject - admiring her in many ways, but often shaking my head at her family and some of her beliefs - I have no mixed emotions about the book, which is just brilliant.

You can tell that McNamara is a journalist and not a professional historian. She brings an enormous talent for storytelling to the subject, and a columnist’s eye for detail and the colorful moment. She’s done an enormous amount of research here, but it all serves the narrative - it never shows itself off, never meanders into gratuitous territory. She’s also clear eyed about the Kennedys; in reading “Eunice,” I was reminded of a line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Eileen McNamara has written a wonderful book here, never succumbing to the legend and always focused on the facts, about a big subject who lived during a big time in America’s history. Whatever your feelings about the Kennedys, I strongly recommend it.

That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.


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