The Kennedys: Privilege & Pressure

<B>Lesley Stahl</B> Talks To Family About Kennedy Legacy

They are an American family like none other. Their accomplishments have made history, and their tragedies have left scars on the nation's soul.

They are the Kennedys, and while their family history would have inspired Shakespeare, it has instead become the life's labor of author Laurence Leamer.

This month, Leamer completes his trilogy of the family with "Sons of Camelot," which explores the lives of the third-generation Kennedy men.

"It's finally time to see the Kennedys in perspective. And it's time for the Kennedys to stand up and dare to speak truthfully, and with depth, about their lives," says Leamer.

Anchor Lesley Stahl talks to six members of the Kennedy family in this special 48 Hours report.

In 1963, three sons of patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy walked like titans across the American political landscape. Jack was president, Robert was attorney general, and young Teddy was a senator from Massachusetts.

But everything changed on Nov. 22, 1963.

With President Kennedy's assassination, the so-called legend of Camelot took hold -- the tragic image of a generation's unfulfilled potential. And Leamer says that for the young Kennedys, it wasn't just a myth – it was a mandate.

"Right afterwards, Bobby Kennedy writes Joseph Kennedy, his oldest son, saying, 'You have a responsibility now. President Kennedy is dead and you have responsibility to go on and carry through this legacy,'" says Leamer. "And this letter isn't just to him. This letter is to all of them."

Robert Kennedy took up the mantle himself, making a run for the White House in 1968. But his assassination after winning the California primary would put more pressure on his children, even as they were mourning his loss.

"With the death of Bobby Kennedy, you see, it's picked up a thousand-fold," says Leamer.

His second son, Robert Kennedy Jr., was 14 when his father died. Does he feel a certain sense of responsibility because he's a Kennedy?

"I don't see any responsibility because I'm a Kennedy," says Bobby Jr. "Celebrity, like wealth, is a currency. You can either spend it doing something that is self-indulgent, which I don't think in the long run is fulfilling. Or you can spend it doing something that benefits your community and leaves something behind that you're proud of."

These are the measured statements of a man who, now at 50, plays down the difficulties of his past. "There are kids who lose both their parents to gunfire every single day in the South Bronx and in Oakland," says Bobby Jr. "And they don't have big families and support systems and people who loved them. And every single member of my family had that."

With his father gone, Bobby's mother, Ethel, turned to Uncle Teddy for help with her 11 children. But Teddy's stature was severely compromised in 1969 with his involvement in the infamous Chappaquiddick car crash that killed 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne.

"After Chappaquiddick, Teddy gives probably the worst speech a Kennedy ever gave in which he said, 'Oh, we may have a Kennedy curse,'" says Leamer. "And the young generation listens to this, and thinks, 'Oh, if there's this curse, then see, we aren't responsible.'"

The Kennedy boys had been raised in a family notorious for risk-taking, excess and a sense of entitlement. It proved, however, to be a destructive combination.

Four of Robert Kennedy's sons developed problems with substance abuse.

By 1983, Bobby had become a successful young lawyer, and a serious heroin addict. "Bobby had this kind of arrogance that he could manage everything," says Leamer. "He could manage being the true bearer of his family's legacy and living a kind of fairly wanton life with drugs and alcohol."

The delusion ended that year when Bobby was busted with heroin on a plane in South Dakota. The next year, his younger brother David died in Florida from a drug overdose.

"I'll say this. Everyone's given something to overcome. My addiction was a gift because I learned a lot about myself," says Bobby. "I felt like I'd squandered a lot of the things that I'd been given, and that somehow, I had to turn those 10 wasted years into something good."

Bobby turned to his love for the outdoors -- a passion he's had since his uncle, John F. Kennedy, was president.

After his arrest, Bobby began doing his court-ordered community service with an environmental group fighting to rescue the Hudson River. It was a cause his father had championed when he was a senator from New York.

"And if he cleaned up the Hudson River, the Hudson River cleaned up him," says Leamer.

Today, the river is cleaner than at any period in the industrial era. Bobby, now one of the nation's leading environmental activists, is married with six children and runs a law clinic at New York's Pace University.

"What I do today is very consistent with the things that my father taught me and that my father was fighting for," says Bobby.

"Surely, he comes the closest to the model of what a Kennedy man is supposed to be in that family," adds Leamer. "He's taken all this darkness, it's doesn't go away. It's still there. But he does these immensely positive things in life."

Separated by 11 years and 3,000 miles, Bobby's younger brother, Max, is in Los Angeles.

He's also honoring his father's memory, and finding himself. "This is the city where my father died, and so there's probably some connection that I feel to him as well living here," says Max, who was only 3 when his father died.

Does he remember him? "I do. I have memories. I remember going to Disneyland with my father," says Max. "I don't know if it was the day before, or two days before, but it was a wonderful trip."

"There's a kind of beauty to him. And a sweetness, and a vulnerability," says Leamer.

Did Max feel that he had a special obligation to live up to the Kennedy legacy?

"I felt an obligation growing up to be the best person that I could be. And I feel a great privilege of being connected to a man such as my father was. But I don't feel a weight from that," says Max.

Perhaps not, but Max has certainly had his struggles. He's a recovering alcoholic and he hasn't had a drink since he was 20.

Like many Kennedys, Max is committed to various political and philanthropic causes.

But he seemed uncomfortable, at best, when he tried to follow directly in his father's footsteps. In 2000, Max made an ill-fated foray into Massachusetts politics. Visions of running for Congress, however, ended shortly after Max's first public speech. "It was a terrible speech," recalls Max.

"On some deep level, I don't think he wanted this," adds Leamer. "He was just-- He was a Kennedy. He should run for office."

But today, Max considers his marriage and three children his greatest accomplishments: "There isn't anything that I have ever loved or achieved in life that I wouldn't give up in the blink of an eye to have my father spend one afternoon with my wife and children."

He's also pursued a career as an author. In 1997, he compiled a book of RFK's quotes and favorite writings. "It was at times painful, because I felt his absence again," recalls Max. "It was a process of getting to know a man whom I really had barely known."

That same year, tragedy struck the family again, when brother Michael Kennedy died in a ski accident in Colorado. Max dedicated his book to his fallen brother, the second he had lost.

"I loved and love both of my brothers more than I could ever explain," he says. "And miss them every day. Every day."

Today, none of Robert Kennedy's children are actively seeking public office. Max's oldest brother, Joe, gave up a seat in Congress after six terms. And his sister Kathleen - once Maryland's lieutenant governor - lost her bid to become governor. They both now work for non-profits.

And Bobby Jr? He shares his father's name, but apparently much less of his ambition.

"I've thought about it. You know, I live my life one day at a time," says Bobby. "I wake up in the morning and try to do what I'm supposed to do that day. And at this point, I think I'm just doing what I'm supposed to be doing."