The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life And Turbulent Times Of Joseph P. Kennedy (Book Review)

David Nasaw’s The Patriarch is a comprehensive account of the life and times of the founder of the Kennedy family dynasty, Joseph P. Kennedy.  In many ways he remains the least understood Kennedy; his name has been subject to rumor, surrounded by myth, and maligned in whispers.  Even during his life he remained a divisive, controversial figure:  at once irascible, overbearing, frustratingly obdurate, and cunning, as well as loyal, devoted, conscientious, and steadfast.

One cannot  read this account of his life without recalling the complex character studies found in Plutarch and Cornelius Nepos, where a famous figure can be truly brilliant in one area yet, at the same time,  shockingly deficient in others.  So are the characters of notable men; and so it was with Joseph P. Kennedy.  He was not born into a poor family; he was the son of a tavern owner in East Boston with political connections who was able to send him to Boston Latin School (then and now, a prestigious academy) and then Harvard.  Kennedy as a youth distinguished himself with his unbounded energy and willingness to work hard; he knew that he wanted to earn a fortune, and this is precisely what he did.  His string of financial successes began early when he chose to enter the banking business after graduating from college.  He prudently invested his earnings in other ventures (e.g., a liquor distributorship, a film company, shipping, etc.), and was able to add substantially to his wealth.  The 1920s provided him with even greater opportunities, and he played the stock market game as well as any insider did in that era; soon he was one of the richest men in the country.

Perhaps this is the aspect of Joseph P. Kennedy’s personality that emerges most starkly in Patriarch:  his uncanny ability as an investor.  Perhaps his Irish Catholic background as an outsider and an underdog gave him a healthy suspicion and caution that his peers lacked, or maybe it was just that he did his research better than his competitors.  Whatever the reason, Kennedy always seemed to know when to get in and out of any market.  By the 1920s and 1930s, he was looking to convert his financial success into political influence, and he became more active in the Democratic party.  There then followed a period of his career that turned out to be, in retrospect, one of the worst in his life.

Franklin Roosevelt appointed Kennedy ambassador to Great Britain in the late 1930s, as Europe was drifting towards war.  It was a job that Kennedy should never have been offered, and one that he should never have accepted.  He was not a diplomat:  he was too outspoken, too opinionated, and too willing be guided by his own prejudices and predilections.  Kennedy was an ardent supporter of Neville Chamberlain’s policy of trying to buy peace with the dictators of the 1930s by offering them rewards for their tantrums and aggressions.  It was a policy that, of course, has since been totally discredited; but even in the late 1930s, it should have been clear to Kennedy that Hitler and Mussolini were not interested in behaving like the reasonable, rational businessmen that Kennedy was used to dealing with.

Kennedy favored appeasement not because he was afraid to fight, but because he honestly believed that war would bring about the ruin of the Western world and its capitalistic system (and with it, the wealth that he had worked so hard to amass).  Like many men of that era, he failed to understand the true nature of the regimes in Berlin, Moscow, and Rome; he believed that everything could be resolved by negotiations and dialogue, if only the aggressors were offered yet more plums.  Even as late as 1939, when it should have been abundantly clear that Hitler was not interested in honoring his agreements, Kennedy was frantically cabling Roosevelt that Britain was making a mistake in preparing for war.  While a brilliant success as a businessman, he was a singular failure as a judge of foreign leaders; he lacked a sense of history, a familiarity with foreign cultures, and an appreciation of the darker side of human nature.  He had no military background.  He utterly failed to grasp that Britain could not, and would not, stand aside and let Hitler conquer Europe; her entire foreign policy since Elizabeth I was to prevent one power from dominating the continent.  He could not understand that it was not in America’s interest to see Europe and East Asia come under the unchallenged control of one power.  He also lacked confidence in the resilience of the capitalist economies; fundamentally a pessimist, he could see in war only ruin and collapse.  Sometimes wars have to be fought, whether we want to fight them or not:  and this was something that Kennedy could not accept.  His increasingly out-of-touch communiques to Washington as war neared became something of a joke in the president’s inner circle; Roosevelt kept him at his post only because he feared his possibly negative political influence should he return home.

Lest one think these criticisms too harsh, we should remember that many others of his era believed as he did.  Isolationists and appeasers were everywhere, and most of them were honest and sincere in wanting to avoid another repetition of the cataclysm of 1914.  Kennedy’s experience as ambassador to Great Britain starkly illustrates the importance of appointing the right man to the right position.  He had done a brilliant job as the head of the newly-founded Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC); had he been given a similar job, he would never have risked disgrace and marginalization.  But this did not happen.  Kennedy was recalled home under a cloud as the Second World War ignited, and he would never quite recover.  His sons, Joe Jr. and John F. Kennedy, did much to redeem the family name through their military service, but Joseph P. Kennedy would never really regain his prewar luster.

This weakness—the failure to judge accurately the characters of men—would be displayed later in Kennedy’s life.  He associated with ex-president Herbert Hoover and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, and saw nothing reprehensible in Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting antics.  One is forced to conclude that there was a certain moral sense lacking in Kennedy’s personality, an inability to call things by their true names.  Fortunately, The Patriarch debunks some of the more malicious falsehoods that have ground up around Kennedy, such as that he was involved in “bootlegging,” or associated with underworld types, or that he used backdoor channels to swing votes in favor of his son in the 1960 election.  All of these rumors are false.

What makes Kennedy such a fascinating figure is his strange mix of brilliance and blindness.  No one knew how to make money better than he; after the war he was incredibly successful as a real estate investor.  But these skills did not help him accurately evaluate the international situation in the 1950s any better than he had in the 1930s.  To understand Kennedy we must understand his fundamentally cautious and pessimistic nature:  the Irish kid from East Boston who had spent a lifetime amassing a fortune and was desperately afraid of losing it, the outsider who had learned from hard experience that it was wise to distrust the motivations of others.  Joseph P. Kennedy was a brilliant and capable man, but he was at heart a pessimist.  And this thinking imbued his view of the world.

His later years saw triumph and tragedy.  He lived to see his son in the White House but had to endure the agony of outliving him.  A stroke had rendered him mute by 1963, but he lived to see an unbroken string of family tragedies that we need not repeat here.  And yet the feeling we are left with at the end of his life is a sense of victory.  Despite all his flaws and weaknesses, Joe Kennedy did what he set out to do.  He escaped the confines of his parochial background, and ascended the highest peaks of American power.  He secured the financial safety of his immediate and extended family permanently.  He dressed immaculately, traveled in style everywhere he went, and enjoyed life to the fullest.  He was surrounded by friends, family, and admirers.

My favorite anecdote about Joe Kennedy was hearing about the “speech” he gave his children individually.  At some point, he would take them aside and tell them something to this effect:  “If you want to do something important and meaningful in your life, I’ll be here to help you and support you.  But I want you to know that, if you choose to be a malingerer or a fool, I have no time to waste on you.”  In other words, Joe Kennedy demanded performance.  He wanted his children to be industrious and purposeful, and conditioned them honor public service.  I like to think that if I ever became a father, this is precisely the sort of lesson I would want to give my own son or daughter.


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