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The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy Paperback – September 24, 2013
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“Riveting…The Patriarch is a book hard to put down…As his son indelibly put it some months before his father was struck down: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your county.’ One wonders what was going through the mind of the patriarch, sitting a few feet away listening to that soaring sentiment as a fourth-generation Kennedy became president of the United States. After coming to know him over the course of this brilliant, compelling book, the reader might suspect that he was thinking he had done more than enough for his country. But the gods would demand even more.” – New York Times Book Review
“David Nasaw’s The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy is the sort of biography that begs to be called ‘magisterial.’– Boston Globe
“Mr. Nasaw has the rare ability to see the big picture and frame the detail with careful scholarship -- all the while making room for elements that do not fit -- which in Joe Kennedy's case is quite a lot…. Mr. Nasaw's is a literate and searching exposition of the patriarch's life that offers the reader compelling answers to questions about JPK…. If The Patriarch doesn't scoop up some serious accolades for the writing of American history, the fix is in.” – Pittsburgh Post Gazette
About the Author
David Nasaw is the author of Andrew Carnegie and The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. He is the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
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Time and time again, Kennedy was wrong. Yet we learn in this bio that he was no Nazi-sympathizer. Instead, he was a businessman and congenital pessimist who did not understand the moral and political consequence of appeasement. He was also, it appears, an anti-Semite who blamed Jews for escalating the conflict with Hitler -- unbelievable, but that's what he thought -- even as he tried to persuade a reluctant Roosevelt and Chamberlain to pressure Hitler to allow Jews to leave Germany for safer ground.
The story of the Kennedy family has been told over and over again, and of course plays a central role in this biography. Despite his infidelities, Kennedy appears to have loved his wife, Rose, and adored his children. His marriage was odd, to say the least -- the couple spent little time together -- but both parties to the deal seemed to have been content. Moving is the account of what happened to Rosemary, the Kennedy's mildly retarded daughter, who fell victim to medical science and her father's attempt to help her.
I would have liked to learn more about Kennedy's involvement with the Truman administration and Cold War politics; the depiction of that period is a bit dry, lacking the drama and detail of the sections devoted to the Depression and Second World War. Nonetheless, this biography is a winner, and has increased my understanding of a complex man who played an important role in the history of the last century.
Here's an example, from page 759: "[Jack] did not want to disappoint his father [on the subject of Bobby as attorney general], and just as important, past experiences had proven that more often than not Joseph P. Kennedy knew what he was talking about." This statement follows several hundred pages in which Joseph P. Kennedy:
1. Argues that Britain will fall immediately if it tries to fight Germany (while the ambassador to Britain)
2. Pushes Britain and the US to reach a negotiated settlement with Germany well into 1941
3. Continues to argue even after 1945 it was the wrong decision for the Allies to fight in WWII
4. Believes Joseph McCarthy is a good guy and the only reason he overstepped is because Roy Cohn was on his team instead of Bobby Kennedy
5. Encourages Jack to sue a TV network for negative statements (instead they got a quiet retraction and the issue died down)
6. Determines the best course for his mentally retarded but functional and happy daughter is a new and radical brain surgery
7. Gives incoherent and contradictory speeches on foreign policy that get him shunned by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations despite his financial contributions and influence
This is a man who, whatever else you want to say about him, emphatically did not know what he was talking about for much of the last 3 decades of his life.
Similarly, we read that nothing was as important to Kennedy as his children and family, immediately after we've learned that he decamped Hyannis Port to vacation alone in Palm Beach and play golf with his buddies whenever the house got crowded, which was preceded by a tiresome and gossipy description of the semi-celebrities and twentysomething French girls he slept with and wrote love letters to during one of his solo trips to Europe. Reading the book I would be hard-pressed to guess how much time each year he actually spent in the same place as his children, but wouldn't be shocked if it was less than a month.
As another reviewer notes, it is perhaps unfair to compare any author to Robert Caro. But when you read the amazing "Years of Lyndon Johnson," the dramatic contradictions between LBJ's actions and beliefs across time - his pettiness and his generosity, his bullying ambition and his lack of self-confidence - are spelled out, if not resolved, in compelling fashion. I sense that the story and character of Joseph Kennedy has some similarities: he really did care about his children and his choice to push them toward public service rather than further financial success was remarkable, but the author scarcely acknowledges the contradiction between caring deeply about his children and spending months alone on vacation. By any reasonable definition, despite the author's protestation to the contrary Kennedy's actions and statements were anti-Semitic, but I sense that there was more to his push against entering WWII or accepting refugees to the U.S. - paranoia? Fear for his children's lives? I wanted to understand Kennedy, and after 800 pages I don't. To make the Caro comparison one more time, his 1-chapter mini-bio of JFK gave me more insight than this book-length treatment of the father. And a few childhood anecdotes about LBJ -- writing his full name in 4-foot-high letters on the blackboard at school when he was leaving to go to the bathroom, refusing to let other kids play with his baseball unless they let him pitch -- are more vivid a year after I read that book than any detail from The Patriarch, which I finished today.
Part of the problem is that the main source is Kennedy's own letters, which of course are not a reliable portrayal of his thoughts and motivations. Caro interviewed seemingly everyone who interacted with LBJ and thus had tremendous insight from multiple perspectives, but Kennedy's contemporaries were gone before this book was written so Nasaw did not have a similar opportunity.
If you view the book as a well-edited selection of Kennedy's more significant letters (and skim the author's commentary), it's a success. As a biography, it's a failure.