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.”