Most Americans remember President John Kennedy and his brother Bobby as young and vigorous, full of promise and hope.It’s hard to fathom that if they’d lived, Robert F. Kennedy would be 87, and Jack would be 95.
Memories are less vivid today of Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan. I remember my dad talking about him when I was a kid. He said Joe Kennedy had made a fortune cornering the whiskey market and bullied just about everybody, especially people who threatened his sons’ political ambitions.He only got part of the story right, but the point is that my dad, who never went to college and grew up on a cotton farm in west Texas, knew who Joe Kennedy was. In his day everybody did, though Kennedy never held or even ran for elective office.”The Patriarchy, a new biography of Kennedy by David Nasaw gives the story its due, and it’s remarkable.Joseph Kennedy is remembered by many as a Nazi-appeaser and an anti-Semite when he was ambassador to England in the late 1930’s. But he was so well-known that when he returned to the states on an ocean liner to visit, reporters crowded the dock for interviews. His name was widely mentioned as a presidential candidate in 1940.There’s much more – Kennedy’s adventures as a Hollywood executive, including an affair with actress Gloria Swanson; his making a fortune in part by manipulating stocks, then cracking down on Wall Street as the first chairman of the SEC; and all kinds of interesting tussles with President Roosevelt, who regarded him as an asset and at times a threat.It’s almost worth reading the book just for FDR’s candid assessment of Kennedy.The biography, called “The Patriarch” is a great read, but you can get a taste by listening to my Wednesday interview on Fresh Air. It airs at 3 and 7 on WHYY, 91 FM.