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

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