JFK & his Papa: David Nasaw’s light on The Patriarch

JFK & JPK 63

David Nasaw’s smashing biography of The Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy smashes not least the legend of a giant gap between cranky father and radiant presidential son. JFK himself gave some substance and flavor to the legend in a delicious impromptu line in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s court account of A Thousand Days. The story was that late in the 1960 campaign, when the Jack and Bobby Kennedy were both extending themselves to keep Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail in Georgia, King’s venerable namesake, “Daddy” King of Atlanta, a lifelong Republican, announced that he’d never thought he could vote for a Catholic… “Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father,” JFK said, in Schlesinger’s telling. The line JFK added “quizzically,” was “Well, we all have fathers, don’t we?”

The gap was broader than that. Joe Kennedy had been an outspoken isolationist even as Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain; he was a Neville Chamberlain appeasement guy while JFK was learning to love Churchill’s rhetoric of indomitability. Joe Kennedy, tainted by soft-core anti-Semitism, was “absolutely, totally opposed” to the war in which his 3 older sons raced to enlist.

So the differences are sharp and significant, but in the masterful researches and close readings of David Nasaw, the continuities are clear, too, and for a new century maybe more telling. Joe Kennedy’s was ready to “make a deal” with Hitler in 1939-40 on the realistic reading that England was not prepared to defend itself in battle. This became JFK’s college thesis and first book, Why England Slept, an echo of his father’s analysis.

The flip side of Joe Kennedy’s appeasement policy was his zeal to negotiate a rescue of European Jews and a peace that would have saved Europe from war’s devastation. Nasaw is emphatic in our conversation on the point that Joe Kennedy knew more, cared more and was ready to do more about the Jews’ predicament than either Roosevelt or Churchill. The instinct for negotiation shows up, of course, in JFK’s inaugural doctrine: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” And it’s confirmed in all the posthumous evidence of JFK’s mostly secret scurrying in his last year of life to make back-channel peace with Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro — to end nuclear testing, to withdraw US forces from Vietnam, in truth to cancel the Cold War. Both father and son can be read (in part anyway) as rueful, near-radical peaceniks up against the merciless war habit.

Joe Kennedy could count the price of war in his own family. “I hate to think how much money I would give up rather than sacrifice Joe and Jack in a war,” he wrote his father in law in 1937. John Kennedy, in the American University Speech in June, 1963 which now sounds like the heart of the man and his most precious legacy, spoke with the same poignancy in plain language: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

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  • 2046

    the download link is wrong

  • chris

    The download is fixed. Thank you, 2046!

  • Robert Zucchi

    Papa Joe’s version of “The Talk”: “Get a live one, Jack. Get a live one!” Papa Joe, building his fortune on insider trading. Papa Joe the movie mogul, buying Gloria Swanson the gift of a Mercedes limo with her own money. These vignettes would much later be merged in the public’s mind with some juicy details of Jack’s nonstop satyriasis. Thus did concupiscence and sharp practice compete with political success and money as the markers for a notable (if sometimes tawdry) public life.

    Some might attribute the contradictions in both men to 1) the absolutions the rich grant themselves by right of class, and 2) the lethean Catholic sacrament of Confession (to forgive is to sanction forgetting). Both explanations seem credible, but I’m struck by another attribute of controversial but noteworthy public figures: their aptitude for dissociation. We of the middling sort sometimes experience conscience (or more to the point, scrupulosity) as assaulting our self-awareness and creating upset in our sense of self-worth. Not so with Papa and Jack. In both, the e.g. provident father and philandering husband dendrites have no synapses in common. Or maybe they function in accordance with the doctrine of jiji muge.

    I know it’s reductive to say so, and it scants our complexities, but thus does our wiring harness make patricians or plebeians of us all.

  • Murray Reiss

    I guess “soft-core” anti-Semitism is one way to put it. “He wasn’t Henry Ford,” was the best Nasaw could do. An if it’s soft-core to believe “the Jews” controlled the media, the government and Hollywood, for starters (even Nasaw goes along with the latter; does he really not comprehend the difference between “Jews run Hollywood” and “the Jews [as in organized conspiracy] run it?), and that it’s the Jews who are dragging America into war, then maybe he was. To call the desire to make a deal with Hitler realistic in any way is sheer delusion on the scale of Nicholson Baker. The peace he wanted to negotiate would, perhaps, have saved Europe from war’s devastation, but only at the price of giving Hitler a free hand to depopulate and enslave it. peacefully, of course. Chris, I think your thirst for someone inside government to speak truth to power, has really led you astray on this one.

    • Robert

      When can we stop portraying Joe Kennedy as another Richard Wagner, somebody with a sick hatred for another nation? Not soon enough. You prove that name-calling is still used like shamans use the names of the elders to heal wounds not curable by medicinal plants..

      The whole point of the book is to setup the question that perhaps he wasn’t the man you and I suppose him to be. He raised two sons who are lasting icons of freedom (Jack) and democracy (Bobby). Contrast that with the sons other powerful men have raised, how almost all are utter failures..

      There must have been something more to the man than just financial inside trading and anti-semitism.

      Would you not agree?

  • Potter

    This was/is a wonderful and extremely interesting interview with Mr. Nasaws about JPK. The Newshour had a clip of JFK the other night and it stopped me in my tracks. This was a man who had a firm core. I miss him. So if he got it from his dad, I have to salute. But by Mr. Nasaws account JPK had some serious flaws and blindspots and an exceptionalism about himself in that regard as well– or maybe because of that exceptionalism, that people deferred to him so, he kept on. But I did not read the book.

    Interesting what you say about Eunice…

    But with regard to JPK’s anti-Semitism I have to differ. First Mr. Nasaws sets up his definition of it, then JPK does not fit. More likely, JPK morphed some or it was a more complicated thing than simply Jews being of “another tribe”. So JPK is not absolved after listening.

    And to be so wrong about Hitler and appeasement! Of course hindsight, or maybe hindsight…or not even hindsight. Plain wrong and obviously so, the Monroe Doctrine notwithstanding. We were never supposed to or able go to sleep in our cozy hideout, separated from the rest of the world… not even from the beginning. Just to be very wary of engagement…

    So I raise my eyebrows at the suggestion that Obama needs 5 men like JPK around him. JFK,RFK,and even some of the grandchildren, yes yes yes.

  • Potter

    I meant to add:

    PS.. I don’t think JPK would have been able to be so discreet in today’s world of peeking and poking, media of all sorts looking for such titillating “news” (the right column of Huffpost) and so Rose, poor Rose, would not have been able to live under illusion or delusion so well. She would have suffered. Or maybe she knew of JPK’s philandering and took it bravely, suffering along with all the compensation and the joys too. I am just imagining.