The children of American politicians — especially those politicians who loom large in the public imagination and history books — are always bathed in a kind of reflective light that lasts longer than perhaps it should and is more intense than it might be for the children of less famous parents.
When those children pass away unexpectedly and too soon, memories are recalled. When we lose two in the space of a weekend, the memories are larger and thicker. The deaths of Kara Kennedy, oldest child of Sen. Ted Kennedy, and Eleanor Mondale, daughter of former vice president and presidential aspirant Walter Mondale, both at the age of 51, come as a shock and invoke memories of their families, historical and political times, and most of all each of the women’s singular spirits.
Kara Kennedy, who had apparently beaten back the threat of lung cancer with tough, draining treatments, reportedly died after working out at a health club. Her brother, Patrick, acting as the family’s spokesman, was quoted as saying “her heart gave out.” She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2003.
Kara Kennedy was a filmmaker, a video and television producer, a board member of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, and a director and national trustee of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
She is survived by her brothers Patrick and Edward Kennedy, Jr., her mother Joan Kennedy, her husband Michael Allen and two teenage children, Grace and Max, and the rest of the extended Kennedy family.
There is no escaping that part of her story — she was born in 1960 when her father was campaigning for his brother John F. Kennedy in his heated race against Richard Nixon for the U.S. Presidency, and not too long thereafter her father won a tough Senate race. She was born to a life where politics and history were only a breath away. She and her brother Edward helped run her father’s senate campaign in 1988.
Her battle with illness and her deep interest in Very Special Arts, which was founded by her aunt Jean Kennedy Smith, speak to the Kennedy name and its triumphs, tragedies and compassionate efforts.
Ted Kennedy, who had a failed presidential run but was deemed the “Lion of the Senate,” was the last of the four great brothers – Joe, John, and Robert. Joe was killed in World War II, and John and Robert were assassinated while Ted died of a brain tumor. Kara Kennedy accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her father in 2009, shortly before he passed away.
Those facts don’t begin to tell the Kennedy saga: They’re like its sharpened, jagged outline. It seems every time we lose a Kennedy, we mourn them all again and reflect on their achievements and lives as individuals and as part of the family.
Eleanor Mondale was in her twenties, vivid and as sparkling as a glass of champagne when her father, a huge political figure in Minnesota and former vice president under Jimmy Carter, decided to challenge Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Mondale won the nomination and made Geraldine Ferraro his running mate, the first time a woman had been so picked. The choice was a ground breaking event, and enlivened what sometimes seemed like a doomed result, which was a crushing defeat for Mondale.
Eleanor Mondale, blonde, smart, charming and lively, gamely campaigned for her father and in the aftermath carved out her own career in the media as a radio show host and entertainment writer. She also did some acting including small parts in “Dynasty” and “Three’s Company” as well as being a constant focus for paparazzi. She was one of those people who seemed to attract the light without trying too hard — she was witty and photogenic, and more than one media type had dubbed her a “wild child.”
That may have had something to do with her personal life. She was married three times and tended to be attracted to athletes and rock stars, marrying Chicago Bears lineman Keith Van Horne, DJ Greg Thunder and Chan Poling of the rock group The Suburbs. She and Poling, whom she married in 2005, lived on a farm in Prior Lake, Minn.
Eleanor Mondale was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 2005.