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   

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