Ver­sion one

Be­fore JFK, RFK, Teddy, John Jr. and Caro­line, a Kennedy to rule them all.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Book­world@wash­ David Green­berg is a pro­fes­sor of his­tory and of jour­nal­ism and me­dia stud­ies at Rut­gers Univer­sity. He is work­ing on a his­tory of the Amer­i­can pres­i­dency and the devel­op­ment of spin.

THE PA­TRI­ARCH The Re­mark­able Life and Tur­bu­lent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy By David Na­saw Pen­guin Press. 868 pp. $40

In the prime of his life, Joseph Pa­trick Kennedy was known not as the fa­ther of a pres­i­dent and two great con­tenders, but as a fre­quently named pres­i­den­tial pos­si­bil­ity him­self. A self-made multi-mil­lion­aire, the el­der Kennedy reined in Wall Street chi­canery as the first head of the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion, then be­came am­bas­sador to Great Bri­tain at the dawn of World War II. “Had Joseph P. Kennedy not been the pa­tri­arch of Amer­ica’s first fam­ily,” writes David Na­saw in his en­gross­ing and per­cep­tive new bi­og­ra­phy, “his story would [still] be worth telling.”

Still, it’s doubt­ful we would have this book had Kennedy’s sec­ond son not be­come a beloved hero the world over. Joe Kennedy con­ceded as much. “As I sit in my of­fice and try to dig out from all the cor­re­spon­dence, I am re­al­iz­ing how in­signif­i­cant it is com­pared to the fact that I am now the fa­ther of the Pres­i­dent of the United States,” he wrote in 1961. “I will prob­a­bly just let the his­tory of my life stand as it stands, and I am quite sure that no­body will care a damn.”

Na­saw cer­tainly does. A his­to­rian at the City Univer­sity of New York and bi­og­ra­pher of An­drew Carnegie and Wil­liam Ran­dolph Hearst, he re­minds us in “The Pa­tri­arch” of the im­por­tance of the el­der Kennedy’s life apart from the tri­umphs of his more fa­mous sons. Un­like the news­magazine edi­tors and ca­ble-news hosts who write most best-sell­ing bi­ogra­phies th­ese days, Na­saw delves deep into ar­chives, re­con­struct­ing vir­tu­ally from scratch a mul­ti­fac­eted and am­bigu­ous por­trait of a fig­ure who was for decades near the cen­ter of power in Hol­ly­wood and Washington, fi­nance and di­plo­macy.

Na­saw high­lights Kennedy’s bot­tom­less am­bi­tion and ca­pac­ity for hard work — of­ten at the ex­pense of his large fam­ily — as he as­cended from the wards of Bos­ton pol­i­tics to the rar­efied world of bank­ing and in­vest­ment. (But not, alas, the world of boot­leg- ging, con­trary to ru­mors that many Kennedy dis­par­agers will be sad to see de­bunked.) In the 1920s, while in his 30s, Kennedy went to Hol­ly­wood, where he not only struck up a ro­mance with Glo­ria Swan­son but mul­ti­plied his riches many times over. “He had en­tered the in­dus­try a rich man,” Na­saw writes, “but he de­parted a multi-mil­lion­aire with more than enough money in his and [his wife] Rose’s ac­counts and in the chil­dren’s trust funds to sup­port them all com­fort­ably for the rest of their lives.”

Kennedy par­layed the fame, wealth and in­flu­ence he achieved in Hol­ly­wood into a spot in Franklin Roo­sevelt’s in­ner cir­cle in the 1932 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. De­spite the long-stand­ing ties of Ir­ish Catholics to the Demo­cratic Party, Kennedy in 1928 had voted his en­gorged pock­et­book, sup­port­ing Her­bert Hoover. Now, how­ever, wor­ried that with­out rad­i­cal ac­tion, the De­pres­sion would dis­si­pate his mil­lions, he switched his loy­al­ties. FDR re­warded him, af­ter a frus­trat­ing hia­tus, by nam­ing him to run the newly cre­ated Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion — en­rag­ing many lib­er­als, who saw it as a clas­sic case of fox-and-hen­house. But Kennedy ended up earn­ing high marks for in­tegrity and ef­fi­ciency from busi­ness­men and New Deal­ers alike.

The squan­der­ing of Kennedy’s rep­u­ta­tion be­gan dur­ing his stint as am­bas­sador to Great Bri­tain, start­ing in 1938. With his breath­tak­ingly hand­some brood, Kennedy took the English so­cial scene by storm, de­light­ing in the “garden par­ties, row­ing re­gat­tas, for­mal balls, af­ter­noon teas, din­ner dances, [and] . . . ten­nis matches at Wim­ble­don.” But prac­ti­cally from the start, he ran afoul of Roo­sevelt and the State De­part­ment with his shame­fully rose­c­ol­ored view of Adolf Hitler, whose dan­ger­ous­ness Kennedy min­i­mized at ev­ery turn. In­deed, Na­saw makes clear that Ken- nedy’s tol­er­ance for Hitler ran deeper than has been gen­er­ally re­al­ized, ex­ceed­ing that of Neville Cham­ber­lain and con­tin­u­ing even af­ter the 1939 in­va­sion of Poland — and even, per­versely, through the 1940 Lon­don blitz, dur­ing which Kennedy lamented the hardi­hood of the Bri­tish be­cause, he fig­ured, the longer they held out, the like­lier the prospects of Amer­i­can in­ter­ven­tion.

Equally re­veal­ing is the depth of Kennedy’s anti-Semitism, which Na­saw makes clear. Not only did he fail to mean­ing­fully ad­vo­cate for Jewish refugees flee­ing Hitler’s bar­barism — a fail­ure in which much of the State De­part­ment was com­plicit — but he pri­vately par­took of con­spir­acy the­o­ries that imag­ined Jewish power in the news me­dia and the movie in­dus­try to be re­spon­si­ble for grow­ing hos­til­ity to­ward Ger­many and in­creas­ing readi­ness to in­ter­vene in the war. Min­gling with other iso­la­tion­ist anti-Semites such as the avi­a­tor Charles Lind­bergh and the trans­planted Amer­i­can so­cialite Nancy Witcher Langhorne (known as Lady As­tor), he ra­tio­nal­ized his loss of in­flu­ence with FDR as the fault of the Jews.

Na­saw is prop­erly scorn­ful, although never shrill, to­ward Kennedy’s anti-Semitism and fas­cist sym­pa­thies. But he is, oddly, rather more tol­er­ant of Kennedy’s post­war “ap­pease­ment” — as Kennedy him­self de­fi­antly called it — of the Soviet Union. In the 1940s and early ’50s, the former am­bas­sador spoke out force­fully against Harry Tru­man’s Cold War poli­cies: sup­port for anti-com­mu­nist regimes in Greece and Turkey, the Mar­shall Plan, even NATO. To be sure, the Viet­nam War and the nu­clear arms race have in ret­ro­spect made clear that the Cold War ex­acted ter­ri­ble costs, and it’s tempt­ing to look back fa­vor­ably on those who warned as much. But the alternative Kennedy of­fered re­sem­bled not so much the sober re­al­ism of jour­nal­ist Wal­ter Lipp­mann — who ar­gued with diplo­mat Ge­orge Ken­nan over the wis­dom of con­tain­ment yet har­bored no il­lu­sions about the Soviet Union — as the un­abashed, draw­bridge-rais­ing iso­la­tion­ism of se­na­tor Robert A. Taft.

This was a pol­icy also at odds with that of a ris­ing young leg­is­la­tor from Mas­sachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Although Na­saw does a com­mend­able job of chron­i­cling Joe Kennedy’s story with­out un­due ref­er­ence to his chil­dren — bring­ing them in only at per­ti­nent mo­ments in Joe’s life — by the 1950s this sep­a­ra­tion is no longer ten­able. As JFK ex­plodes as a na­tional fig­ure, he breaks away from his fa­ther, re­ly­ing on Dad for money and other help but mak­ing more and more of his own po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions — the fa­ther op­posed Kennedy’s bid for the 1956 vice-pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, for ex­am­ple — and ar­riv­ing at his own pol­icy stances. Ac­cord­ingly, the book’s nar­ra­tive, too, breaks from its tight fo­cus on the el­der Kennedy as the son takes cen­ter stage. Even though Na­saw through­out the book refers to the fa­ther as “Kennedy,” it be­comes jar­ring in the book’s last chap­ters to find the free­stand­ing sur­name used to re­fer to Joe, not Jack.

Na­saw notes some sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two Kennedys’ for­eign poli­cies, but it’s the dif­fer­ences that are truly strik­ing. In for­eign pol­icy, JFK was notably less com­pla­cent about com­mu­nism than his fa­ther, while also ar­gu­ing pre­sciently against West­ern colo­nial­ism, notably in the case of French Al­ge­ria. In domestic pol­icy, a sim­i­lar pat­tern emerged. Although Joe Kennedy sup­ported the Demo­cratic Party’s tra­di­tional be­lief in fed­eral largesse, he was too much the busi­ness­man to call him­self a lib­eral and too close to the Catholic hi­er­ar­chy to share JFK’s be­lief in the strict sep­a­ra­tion of church and state. In con­trast, JFK, like his brothers af­ter him, man­aged to tran­scend his fa­ther’s parochial­ism and iden­tify as a lib­eral — hard­boiled, cer­tainly, and dis­dain­ful of bleed­ing­heart sen­ti­men­tal­ism, but proud to pro­mote the New Fron­tier poli­cies that would bear fruit un­der Lyn­don John­son’s Great So­ci­ety.

As with many a pa­tri­arch, the in­flu­ence of Joseph P. Kennedy lay largely in the ways that his strong­minded and tal­ented sons found to rebel.


U.S. Am­bas­sador to Great Bri­tain Joseph P. Kennedy, cen­ter, is flanked by his sons Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., left, and John F. Kennedy in this 1938 pho­to­graph aboard an ocean liner. As am­bas­sador, Joe Kennedy took a tol­er­ant view of Adolf Hitler.

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