Modern Medicis, accelerated in the American medium,
This review is from: The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (Paperback)
This is a thoroughly engrossing book about a man of unslakable thirst for power, money, and prestige. Based on access to new sources - the arcane claim of most biographers to "originality" - this bio actually does lay to rest many controversies and smears about this brilliant and ruthless man. It also covers the events of the time, in most of which JPK had some hand, in fascinating but not excessive detail.
JPK was born to an upper middle class Irish Catholic family in East Boston, his father a local pol and cautious businessman. JPK showed early signs of white hot ambition, going to Boston Latin and then Harvard as a baseball star. Interestingly, like his kids, he was a mediocre student, always barely making it through because he was so busy living larger than life. He then went into business and became one of the wealthiest men in the US, all while raising a family, chasing women, and pushing his way into the absolute top tier of national politics. The only thing you can say is that he had the energy of a genius - with a strong dose of audacity and guile.
Beyond a well written if somewhat pedestrian narrative of events, Nasaw goes directly at the myths and claims about JPK. On the side of truth, he finds JPK a man full of rage (largely at Catholic exclusion by Protestants), striving to control every aspect of his life and family and then that of the country itself, and utterly ruthless in the way he pursues his goals. He worried about everything, to the point that it impacted his health but never slowed him down. Much of what he accomplished was by work and an unbelievable shrewdness, at least in business, while sticking to his ideals and ideas and speaking his mind regardless of the consequences. He had a big mouth and an extraordinary amount of vitriol to spew. On the mythic side, which is extremely valuable, Nasaw argues that he was not a bootlegger, did not have ties to the mob, and was not a puppetmaster in the political careers of his sons.
As far as his political judgments went, when it wasn't about business, JPK had flawed judgement, as evidenced in the people he doggedly supported. The most important was Neville Chamberlain, the great "appeaser" of Hitler that JPK supported as ambassador to the UK. (He was an awful diplomat, an amateur placed for political considerations by FDR in a most perilous time.) JPK felt that Hitler was unstoppable, that democracies were almost certainly doomed, that the economy was perpetually on the verge of imploding, that American engagement with the world was invariably a mistake and waste of resources. He also exhibited the prejudices of his time: while by no means a rabid anti-semite, anti-semitic reasoning was interwoven in his intellectual DNA - Jews controlled the economy, FDR, and many aspects of international politics. While attempting to help Jews within Hitler's reach, his principal aim was to keep American out of WWII. He also had many Jewish friends and allies (like Arthur Krock of the NYT, who may have been on JPK's payroll and consistently supported him in his columns and by ghost writing for all the Kennedys). Later, JPK was also closely allied (and personal friends) with Joe McCarthy and J Edgar Hoover, who helped him cover up many embarrassing incidents of his reckless children. In other words, he was a man of his times with all its ugliness and not in any way a political visionary.
The lives and careers of his children are also quickly described. I am something of a Kennedy buff, so this was of great enjoyment to me. JPK's influence on them is far more nuanced than commonly thought. He would do everything to help them, protect them, and guide them, but they didn't always cooperate. For example, Kathleen when ahead and married a protestant, then when he died, dated a protestant playboy who promised to divorce his wife. All of his boys had trouble in school, so his father hired tutors as well as researchers to help them shine at Harvard. JFK later on did not completely trust his father's political instincts, though paid him homage.
On balance, I left this biography with greater admiration for JPK, but more aware of his flaws. It does play down what could be seen as negative, such as his treatment of business partners - he was selfish, self-aggrandizing, and knew when to cut and run with the lion's share of profits. But I believe Nasaw was convincing that he was a loving father rather than an abusive one. It compares extremely well with the sentimental Doris Kearns or the bitterly critical Seymour Hersh.
As many have noted, the book is somewhat lopsided. JPK's public career, particularly the 1.5 years as Ambassador to UK, gets extensive coverage and is often a dry read. Much of it, such as his difficult relationship with FDR, is repetitive and ultimately dull. Then the latter 30 years of his life, when his kids come to the fore, are glossed over. It is, of course, JPK's bio and not that of his kids.
Warmly recommended. This is a scholarly work that reads like a novel, with the exception of the dry patches.