Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Many Faces of Joseph P. Kennedy IV


Two weeks, the heart of winter, a siege of the flu -- so epidemic, so unwelcome.  OK now, back in action.

It is probably worthwhile to insert here part of a recent e-mail exchange with Steve Sewall, a Chicago teacher and political activist who is  -- like me -- especially concerned with the media pressure these days to sugarcoat our history.  Steve indicated that "I too resist conspiracies for the very reasons you do and yet, like you, find myself hard pressed not to arrive at the very conclusions you do."

I had written him:  "I've never been much of a conspiracy theorist, preferring to derive my conclusions from the evidence.  But I am now hard pressed not to concede that there is a kind of agreement at work out there in most of the establishment publications and the ever more conglomerated book houses and periodicals to rework history, avoid the hard, internally coherent facts that keep forcing themselves through into any reasonable interpretation of events and substitute a kind of incoherent revisionism, a bland, adoring, heavily censored treatment of the primary figures and their accomplishments and limitations utterly unrelated to the reality of events.  We appear to be sliding into some kind of intellectual totalitarianism in which speech will remain free as long as it conforms with the accepted -- i.e., bought and paid-for -- wisdom of the establishment.  Anybody's hope for tenure or the more respected prizes seems to depend on falling in line.

"I suspect that this process may have begun with the propaganda campaign that led to JFK's presidency.  Joe Kennedy's money produced a series of pumped-up and highly selective treatments of the emerging JFK, which even the harder heads in the Kennedy braintrust -- Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Richard Goodwin, etc., both friends of mine -- felt obliged to reflect in their post-administration writings.  The Right was so merciless, and the best of the Kennedy administration's accomplishments were so tenuous, that much of the truth fell victim.  Now, retroactively, we have the utter, shameless revisionism of Nasaw's cliche-riddent apologia, obviously intended to play to a Camelot-smitten reading audience a long way from able to deal with reality.

"One of my regrets here is that Nasaw's travesty only delays the major, incisive, reality-embracing treatment of Joe Kennedy's life for which we have been waiting.  As I attempted to suggest in my three-quarters portrait of the founder in Bobby and J Edgar, Joe was a fascinating player in his time, a driven, ulcer-ridden self-promoter with an astonishing ability to shoulder his way into the center of events.  Harry Truman and Sam Giancana, the ramrod of the Chicago Mob with whom Joe did so much business, summed it up in the same sentence:  'Joe Kennedy is the greatest crook in America.'  To disavow the subterranean level of Kennedy's accomplishments is to miss entirely what happened and why.

"In his office Ted kept a full-length photograph of his father.  The middle-aged Joe Kennedy was standing on a street corner, the collar of his trenchcoat up and his snap-brimmed hat pulled down. This was an operative accomplishing his purposes behind the scenes.  I asked Teddy about the picture once.  'Well,' the senator said, and stopped to consider his words, 'Dad was a fellow--   Dad knew a lot of people.  He had lot of friends, many of whom we knew very little about.'  In time I discovered that Ted was a bit disingenuous.  In West Virginia in 1960 and on other occasions Teddy had been forced to step in and help out a few of these mysterious friends.  But the point was made."

The problem with tracts like Nasaw's version of Joe Kennedy's life is that it has been scrubbed so clean nothing human can survive on its surface.  Typical is Nasaw's treatment of Kennedy's notorious womanizing.  Although Nasaw is willing to admit, obliquely, that Joe did have his women and that Gloria Swanson served while she was useful as Joe's "mistress," the specifics keep getting smudged.  Referring to the visit of Swanson and her husband Henri to the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach, Nasaw writes that "In handwritten notes for her autobiography, Swanson would later claim that while members of Kennedy's entourage took Henri fishing, she and Joe had sex for the first time."  Such private notes, the squeamish Nasaw implies, might or might not reflect reality.  But in her best-selling autobiography itself, Swanson on Swanson, Gloria is a lot more unequivocal -- Kennedy was on her that day "like a roped horse," followed by a premature ejaculation.

My point here is not so much to showcase Joe Kennedy's free-wheeling sex life as to suggest the role Kennedy's conquests played during his rise.  Swanson was Kennedy's ticket into big-star movie-making.  More venturesome biographers than Nasaw have tracked Kennedy's many bed-partners, from Missy LeHand, FDR's durable summer wife, to Clare Booth Luce, the eminent playwright and wife of the most powerful media mogul of the age, perhaps the foremost -- and best paid, by Joe himself  --propagandist by the later fifties for the emerging John F. Kennedy.  The pious Rose Kennedy was uncomfortable enough about Joe's sexual foragings to leave him at one point and return home only when Honey Fitz threw her out and Rose had to bite her lip and crawl back to active motherhood.  She would gradually come to understand that the privileges she craved depended to some extent on Joe's glandular versatility.

As Bobby and J. Edgar specifies in meticulously sourced detail, all this as well is part of the history of the Kennedys.  To leave the human moments out is to desecrate our history.

Stay warm,

Burton Hersh   

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Many Faces of Joseph P. Kennedy III


Into 2013.  Survived the Mayan apocalypse.  Anticipating spiritual rejuvenation.

For several weeks now I have been gnawing away at the recently published biography of Joe Kennedy by David Nasaw and basing my observations entirely on the reviews I've run across.  But now I have the book,  I've combed it out pretty well.  I hope my comments are more specifically on point.

First : this is a big book -- 868 pages -- with very small print.  With that much room to run the knowledgeable reader might hope for new information, fresh insights, an expanded sense of this dynamic if compromised paterfamilias.  Sadly, what Nasaw has produced reads like a poorly thought through campaign biography, steering around anything really controversial, anything that might help us understand the accomplishments and miseries of Kennedy's blighted family.  Even the earliest serious treatments of Joe Kennedy's life -- by James MacGregor Burns, by Richard Whalen, by Lawrence Leamer -- went farther, dug deeper and a lot more honestly than this.  It is as if -- from the grave, through his descendants -- Joe Kennedy is still campaigning for respectability.

This book is essentially a paste-up, a sequence of letters and documents culled from research libraries and devoted to bringing alive again a man who never was.  Virtually nothing hands on, no original interviews or breakthrough revelations to give this endless narrative some purpose.  Nasaw dismisses rumors of Kennedy's bootlegging as having originated in "unsubstantiated, usually off-the-cuff remarks" by "Mob figures not particularly known for their truth telling."  By so doing, Nasaw ignores a vast body of evidence pulled together by real researchers and writers like Gus Russo and Kennedy relatives John Davis and Gore Vidal and many others as well as solid, carefully vetted work by Sam Giancana's descendants.  FBI files on Johnny Rosselli and Kennedy himself, which I have copied and sourced in Bobby and J. Edgar, nail all this down.

Nasaw evades dealing with this preponderance of evidence by the -- to me -- unique device of replacing what in most historical works is labeled, simply, "Bibliography," with what he calls "Bibliography of Works Cited."  That way whatever he does not choose to recognize ceases to exist, my own book definitely.  Historically important incidents, like Joe Kennedy's telephone manipulations from poolside on Marion Davies' estate to push Lyndon Johnson onto the ticket with JFK against the preferences of both Jack and Bobby, go completely unremarked.

Nasaw sidesteps Joe Kennedy's physical decline, his prostectomy at 68, and his heartbreaking eight-year involvement with Janet Des Rosiers -- brilliantly reported by Leamer but sloughed off by Nasaw, who refers obliquely to Janet as somebody who "would later claim to have been his mistress since around 1948."  There is the occasional oblique reference to Kennedy's "girls" from time to time;  Nasaw lets that go most of the time, womanizing doesn't seem to have any place in what its publisher bills as Nasaw's "definitive" biography.

Even the quotes are doctored.  When Pat Jackson, a liberal, prepared a statement during the 1960 campaign for Jack to read opposing Joe McCarthy, James McGregor Burns is quoted in Nasaw's book, "..Joseph Kennedy sprang to his feet with such force that he upset a small table in front of him.... 'You and your friends are trying to ruin my son's career!'"  Actually, Burns quoted Kennedy as having said "You and your Sheeny friends are trying to ruin my son's career."  Nasaw left Sheeny out.  The surviving Kennedys probably wouldn't have liked a quote that pungent.

One point reviewers made was that Nasaw did face up to Joe's anti-Semitic outbursts.  But even that was much more complicated than Nasaw is willing to admit.

Next time.

Burton Hersh