Edward M. Kennedy deserves all the praise he is getting as the most effective member of the U.S. Senate. But for all the Kennedys' talent and charm, the real secret to the family’s success was Joseph P. Kennedy.
A wealthy businessman, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and U.S. ambassador in London, Joe Kennedy devoted his life to propelling his son John F. Kennedy into the White House, paving the way for the rest of the family to enter politics. It was his edict that they rise to the top of American government. As a silent partner, Joe Kennedy provided the cash and connections.
As I learned when researching "The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded," Joe ran the family like a football team. He was the coach, the manager, and the referee. The aim was to win at everything, no matter what.
When they were as young as 6, Joe entered his children in races. “And if we won,” his daughter Eunice Shriver recalled, “he got terribly enthusiastic. Daddy was always very competitive. The thing he always kept telling us was that coming in second was just no good.”
Feelings were repressed. Joe wanted the children to “be able to smile no matter how tough things were,” Ted Kennedy once recalled. His father would say, “I don’t want any sour pusses around here.”
Over and over, Joe told the children, “Kennedys don’t cry.” A micromanager, he inquired of each child about his or her weight and even found a discreet way to find out if they were having regular bowel movements.
Joe Kennedy managed to compartment his life so perfectly that even his closest aides did not know every facet of his operations. With his piercing sky-blue eyes, round spectacles, freckles, and reddish blond hair, Kennedy would be described in print as a Horatio Alger hero and a chaste Roman Catholic.
Usually, he would be pictured with his wife Rose and one or more of his nine children, his 190 pounds fitting trimly into a 6-foot frame. The published photos never showed his well-sculpted, green-eyed Hyannis Port secretary, Janet Des Rosiers Fontaine, who was his mistress for nine years.
“The children adored their father,” Fontaine told me. “If Joe controlled them much more than most parents, they were used to it and never complained,” she said.
What was remarkable was the loyalty the children had toward each other. “The family pounced on the home every weekend,” she said. “They played golf and tennis and swam together. They ate together. They completely enjoyed each other’s company.”
The Religious Front
Contrary to the impression he so successfully conveyed, Joe was not at all religious. “He never went to church, I don’t think. He never talked about it,” said Fontaine, a Catholic who was seduced by Joe when she was 24 and a virgin. “He did not go to confession. Oh God! If a priest heard his confession.”
In Palm Beach during Christmas of 1944, Joe gave Jack his orders: He was to take the place of his late brother Joe Jr. and enter politics. More than a decade later, for an International News Service series in May 1957, Jack told reporter Bob Considine: “It was like being drafted. My father wanted his eldest son in politics. ‘Wanted’ isn’t the right word. He demanded it. You know my father . . .”
Joe established trusts for his children and grandchildren. In the view of New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, it was the “force” of Joe’s personality and “the fact that he made them all rich” that kept the children in line.
They knew that they “owed their financial independence to him,” Krock said. “They were grateful for it. It meant they did not have to take any job. That was a good strong hold.” It meant that if Joe said, “Jack, go into politics,” he’d say, “Yes, sir.”
Joe recognized the power of the media. He cultivated key journalists of the day like Krock, giving him extensive gratuities, including cases of Haig & Haig pinch bottle and lengthy vacations in Joe’s Palm Beach home, where Joe's chefs prepared all meals.
The first time I met Ted Kennedy was back in the 1960s at a clam bake he gave for members of the Massachusetts press at his Cape Cod home. Jackie Kennedy was a star attraction, swimming in the ocean in a bikini.
Then and now, such invitations to Kennedy parties are prized by the media. The social interactions have gone a long way toward giving the Kennedys favorable press — a lesson President Bush, sadly, has yet to learn.
Long before spin doctors and political gurus talked of “packaging” presidential candidates, Joe shaped Jack’s image more effectively than any Madison Avenue executive.
“We’re going to sell Jack like soap flakes,” Joe said.
As detailed in "The Sins of the Father," Joe made a payoff of $75,000 to get Jack on the cover of Time magazine for the first time.
“Democratic whiz of 1957,” the cover of the Dec. 2, 1957 issue of the magazine said. Jack had just begun his bid for the presidency, and the glowing story gave him a tremendous boost.
Joe recognized that having a best-selling book would help Jack win the presidency. As Joe’s New York secretary, one of Gertrude Ball’s earliest assignments was to type the research reports that Joe’s employees had written and which became chapters in Jack’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, "Profiles in Courage."
“Mr. [James A.] Fayne did some of the research on it, and [James] Landis did some of the research on it while Jack was in the hospital with a bad back in New York City,” Ball told me. “I typed up their reports, their notes, to give to him.”
Ball said Theodore C. Sorensen — the bespectacled, lean, intense, and completely devoted lawyer who was Jack’s assistant — wrote the final drafts.
Harper & Row published "Profiles in Courage" on Jan. 2, 1956. Joe Kane, Joe’s cousin and political adviser, later said that Joe had employees buy huge quantities of the book at critical bookstores to generate enough sales to place the book on best-seller lists. Joe then persuaded Krock, a former member of the Pulitzer Prize advisory board, to lobby the board on behalf of the book. Krock confirmed he was able to “log roll” the board’s members to give Jack the Pulitzer, bolstering his credentials during his run for president.
Joe persuaded a top television executive in New England to give Jack lessons in going before a camera. Joe was “consumed by the fact that TV would make the difference in the presidential election,” the executive said. “Jack was the fastest read I ever saw. He mastered TV production. He was very natural. Jack was himself. We taught him the techniques. We had him look through the camera lens. He was formidable. This guy did his homework. He worked at it.”
As Joe predicted, television was a decisive factor in the 1960 election. By then, some 90 percent of American households owned television sets, and 13 percent owned more than one. Meanwhile, the number of daily newspapers had dropped. The televised debates between Jack and Richard Nixon gave Kennedy the edge that enabled him to defeat the vice president.
On the Money
So did Joe’s money. Joe funneled money to politicians to swing the West Virginia primary, a critical test of whether a Protestant, largely anti-Catholic state would come out for a Catholic candidate for president.
Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill recalled in his memoirs that Eddie Ford, a successful Boston real estate man, “went out there [with] a pocket full of money.” O’Neill said Ford would “see the sheriff, and he’d say to the sheriff, ‘Sheriff, I’m from Chicago. I’m on my way south. I love this young Kennedy boy. He can help this nation, by God. He’s got the feeling for it, you know. He’ll do things for West Virginians. I’ll tell you what. Here’s $3,000.’” Or he would say, “‘Here’s $5,000. You carry your village for him or your county for him, and I'll give you a little reward when I’m on my way back.’ And they passed money around like it was never seen.”
Although Jack certainly knew that his father was spending a lot of money, he wasn’t always aware of the details, O’Neill said. “But during the campaign, he was able to defuse the criticism about all his father’s money by repeating one of his famous jokes,�� O’Neill said.
O’Neill quoted Jack as saying, “I have just received the following telegram from my generous father: ‘Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll help you win this election, but I’ll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide!’”
After Jack became president, his friend Charles Spalding recalled that as a Marine helicopter lifted him from Joe Kennedy’s white-shingled, two-story home in Hyannis Port, Jack pointed at his father sitting in a wheelchair below.
“He made the whole thing possible,” the president said.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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