Tags: Kennedy | book | Nasaw | history

Kennedy Books Offer Compelling Perspective

Wednesday, 05 Dec 2012 04:11 PM

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I have to offer my own review of David Nasaw's new book, "The Patriarch: The remarkable life and turbulent times of Joseph P. Kennedy." (Penguin Press, NY, 2012.)

This is the story of Joseph P. Kennedy, tycoon, Ambassador, and founding father of an American political dynasty. Written in a lively colorful style, author David Nasaw offers a rich tableau of money, mafia, hurts, political betrayal and revenge.

All of it is dripping with ambition. One cannot fully understand modern American politics, without this story. And because of its new cache of detail and primary sources, one cannot fully audit this story without David Nasaw's new book.

The narrative is so compelling that it sometimes feels like a novel instead of a serious and important work of history. Some of the early parts of Joseph Kennedy's life, which come off as tedious and necessary labor in other books, unfold at Nasaw's direction with much nuance and interest.

The story has all the conflict and drama of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" and indeed has some of the same characters, albeit a little later in history and happening a little further north, up the coast.

David Nasaw, whose book on Andrew Carnegie was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was personally selected by the Kennedy family to write this book. And as one might imagine, this turns out to be a two-edged sword. While new family letters and other source material make this an important and necessary part of any collection on the Kennedy saga, there is much he leaves curiously untouched and unexplored.

The book dwells heavily in the early, money-making years of Joseph P. Kennedy and gives very little attention to his life after the ascent of his son to the White House. His stroke and how he lived and coped and what he knew during his years of convalescence is left practically untouched.

Did he fully know what was happening? And to what degree? What was his relationship to Rose during those years?

Nasaw sometimes plays to public ignorance and popular myth, suggesting, for example that it was Joseph P. Kennedy "who built the bridges between the entertainment and political worlds that would stand for the next 50 years and more." (p. 762.)

Actually, the symbiotic relationship between entertainment and politics is as old as ancient Greece and forms a direct chain throughout history, from Mozart and the Archbishop of Salzburg to Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth. John Adams' son was a buddy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the poet Longfellow and novelist Mark Twain were both friends of presidents.

John Tyler's son married a New York stage actress who ran the White House on behalf of an invalid First Lady.

Nor was the advent of film any different. There was Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl. Jimmy Roosevelt, son of FDR was the vice president of Samuel Goldwyn Productions and his brother, Elliot, married one of the most popular actresses of his day.

Some of the more controversial and irreverent Kennedy family members, whose observations enliven the works of Doris Kerns Goodwin, "The Fitzgerald's and the Kennedys: An American Saga" (St. Martin's Press), and Thomas Maier's "The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings" (Basic Books), are missing in this accounting.

But its most egregious omission is failing to flesh out the stories and the family sources of John H. Davis, Jackie Kennedy's cousin, whose book "The Kennedys: Dynasty and Disaster" 1848-1983 (McGraw-Hill) details so much of the patriarch's last years. I read with mounting curiosity as Nasaw's story inexorably ground its way to that period of Kennedy's life, fully expecting to hear some anecdotes and assumptions refuted or explained.

I should have remembered the famous Kennedy mantra, and in fairness to Nasaw he had warned me again and again in advance. "Never complain, never explain," And true to their word, most of the colorful accounts of Joseph P. Kennedy and his life as a zombie are totally panned.

It is a curious irony. Joseph P. Kennedy had lobotomized his retarded daughter Rosemary and had her banished to Wisconsin, to be raised by nuns, all with good intentions, of course, relying on the conventional medical and rehabilitative knowledge of his time.

So too, the family has accepted the conventional wisdom about their patriarch's own affliction. They have him reduced in their minds to a less than conscious state during his last years and so in Nasaw's account he obediently sits and stares at the wall. It is the accepted Kennedy version of history.

Perhaps it is the dignity of the patriarch they are protecting and a cushion against any more pain. "Please, don't tell us any different," the family seems to say. And who can blame them? David Nasaw dutifully obliges them. The problem being that this version of history is in direct conflict with the eye witnesses and caregivers in the book so convincingly documented by John H. Davis.

This unresolved mystery may fulfill the Kennedy mantra but it guarantees that this will not be the last and fully authoritative book on the subject of Joseph P. Kennedy.

If you are intrigued by the Kennedys and want to add to your knowledge of modern American history you will love this book but keep in mind, the story is over, but it's telling has only begun.

Doug Wead is a presidential historian who served as a senior adviser to the Ron Paul presidential campaign. He is a New York Times best-selling author, philanthropist, and adviser to two presidents, including President George H.W. Bush. Read more reports from Doug Wead — Click Here Now.

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