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Joseph K.

Sell ‘em Ben” Smith and other raiding bears were called—with Richard Whitney, John J. Raskob, Charles E. Mitchell, J. P. Morgan, Jr., the midget, all the bullish crew—to account for their activities to the Senate Banking and Commerce Committee, but not Kennedy. “Although he was as culpable as many,” observes Mr. Whalen at his most alert. His strenuous campaigning for Roosevelt had recreated Joe Kennedy in a fresh image, pristinely detached from the funny business on Wall Street. In 1936, in a campaign document. I’m for Roosevelt, he was to write of the hearings in retrospect and no slight sense of outrage. The “amazing revelations…involved practically all the financial community in practices which, to say the least, were highly unethical. The belief that [they] were motivated by ideals of honorable conduct was completely shattered”: thus Joseph P. Kennedy. And yet, and yet…only three years before, in 1933, the author had been anticipating the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and the renaissance of the liquor business. With his new good friend Jimmy Roosevelt he sailed to England where the distillers of Haig & Haig, Dewar’s, Gordon’s Gin, delighted to know a friend of the son of the President, clasped Kennedy to their bosom as sole US distributor of their profitable fluids. And with a lesser acquaintance, Henry Day, Kennedy found a good thing in the manufacture of bottle glass, or the illusion thereof. Day’s reputation was not nice; he had been in the oil business with Harry S. Sinclair of Teapot Dome, and neither a jail term nor the passage of years had greatly chastened him: he was a manager of stock pools. Day’s plan for the Booze Boom was to sucker small investors into a market rigged for the sale of the stock of an obscure manufacturer of plate glass, Libby Owens Ford. It was easily confused with Owens Illinois Glass, which honestly did make bottles suitable for booze. Such a stunt did not escape the chief investigator of the Senate committee, Ferdinand J. Pecora, who asked: Who is this mysterious Joseph P. Kennedy? “A capitalist” replied Day In the witness chair. “My understanding of a capitalist is somebody who has considerable funds and does not have to work.”

The next year a sad surprise was in store for Pecora. Not unreasonably, he aspired to the chairmanship of the immensely powerful Securities and Exchange Commission that had been set up as the result of his immense investigative labor. All that work, and who got the plum? The mysterious capitalist who did not have to work. For months Pecora had had Kennedy’s market manipulations under sharp review. Well, that was the game—find a good robber and make him the cop. To pacify Business, Roosevelt badly needed a Conservative to preside over the four “rabid New Dealers” who might otherwise run amok in this unprecedented experiment in government control. “The days of manipulation are in the past now,” Chairman Kennedy announced to the press; meanwhile Ferdinand Pecora was to serve under him as the junior member of the Commission. “Ferdie took it pretty well.” said Jim Farley, who broke him the news.

In Roosevelt’s presence, Raymond Moley asked the Chairman if there was anything in his career that could be used to embarrass the President. Kennedy exploded, and in profane indignation he defied his critics to prove one shady act; he vowed the SEC an administration the country would be proud of. With a diligent and intelligent staff (one of the young lawyers said, “If you ask me, sir, the average small investor is a greedy son of a bitch”), and Kennedy giving full loyalty and energies to the job, he fulfilled his vow in 431 days. He was Roosevelt’s outspoken Right Wing, a welcome foil to the yes-men in the White House. Mrs. Roosevelt said, “I want you to go right on telling Franklin exactly what you think.” Suspicious New Dealers (but never Ickes, who would not have trusted him at the end of a rope) were seduced by his bluff and smiling ways. “Why the hell do you fellows hate me?” he said, and after that how could they?

That smiling, ebullient charmer; the fiery Irish, I’ll-say-what-I-Goddamplease Joe Kennedy bantering with reporters on the He de France: the jovial businessman envoy who would not wear the knee breeches (“Not Mrs. Kennedy’s little boy”) traditional to the British Court (the ‘kidding” back home would “ruin” him) was a front. Mr. Whalen has partially penetrated it, by emphasizing the bearishness of his man. The strain was central to a complex, passionate nature driven under harsh disciplines after some imperial conception of self, some manifest destiny of ego. Bearishness, a negative force on Wall Street, implies as well a defensive quality. The compulsion of the bear is to protect his own against disasters that threaten on every hand. In the vernacular of Boston, a nameless “observer” gave Mr. Whalen a rare insight: “Joe Kennedy had a hot heart and a cold head. That’s what made the steam in him.” Of necessity it was a one-man operation.

The wisdom of the bear is compounded of congenital distrust and fathomless pessimism. The propensities which served Kennedy well in the realm of finance in politics were his undoing. If he had dreams of the Presidency, they never survived the Ambassadorship. His jaunty arrival in London finished in debacle. His rapport with Chamberlain—a Birmingham industrialist, descendant of tradesmen, gifted Chancellor of the Exchequer: for Hitler the epitome of a Nation of Shopkeepers—was all but idyllic. (“Why, Franklin himself isn’t as confidential with me.” There was an unwitting wisdom in the words.) The Ambassador was at home with the great financiers of the City, at Clivedon, most anywhere people had the bearish view of Hitler: appease, be sensible; Europe can’t survive a war; business can’t survive a war. Through the Anschluss, Munich, the guarantee of Poland, through dreams of Peace in our Time, and of a Nazi Bolshevik war of double suicide, he stood with Chamberlain. On September 3, 1939, when Great Britain declared war, he freely wept at the Prime Minister’s message: “…everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed in ruins.” The hot heart overcame the cold head for once. “It’s the end of the world…” he told Roosevelt on the telephone, over and over. The President could not soothe him; the dauntless optimist could not prevail over a temper black as the Valley of the Shadow, and the mutually beneficial alliance began to fray. “I can’t go against the guy,” he said. “He’s done more for me than my own kind.” He stood by his benefactor for one last test, then resigned quietly and bitterly, and without so much as a “Dear Joe” letter from Franklin for his pains.

A private citizen again, he commenced to speak his mind, and indeed so lucidly that his sons, as liberal Democrats, are dogged by his utterances to this day. A group of Jewish movie makers were counseled against denouncing Nazi Germany openly, lest people get the impression this was a “Jewish War.” Louis Lyons of the Boston Globe was told in an interview that Democracy was “all done” in England and would be so here as well if we got into the war. Lyons’s story broke on a Sunday, as fate would have it, the day Neville Chamberlain died; its repercussions on Right and Left, foreign and domestic, were “quite enough to demolish Kennedy’s reputation.” He departed from public life, his name anathema to interventionists, liberals, leftists, from Joseph Alsop to Joe Curran. The day of Pearl Harbor he immediately offered himself to Roosevelt, but nothing came of it; there was too much animosity against him in the Cabinet and liberal press. He went back to making money (oil wells, real estate) and he reared his family.

A virtue of Mr. Whalen’s book is that superficially, but with little of the treacle which the subject usually evokes, and in a year which hails Edward Albee as its foremost delineator of American Family Life, it presents Joseph Kennedy as the sympathetic patriarch of a family whose cohesiveness seems downright medieval. It has been conjectured that all Kennedy’s acts, his success and his blunders, were motivated by a fiercely protective love of family. Is that what underlay all the brashness and loud pessimism? In every crisis, unfailingly his public statements made mention of his children. In the Depression years he had morbid fears of revolution; he would gladly surrender half his wealth, he said, to be sure that his children might safely have the rest. He was an isolationist to a degree that he had rather be wildly damned for an anti-British, Jew-baiting, Germanophilic ogre than jeopardize his children’s future in a war which would destroy the economy.

Instead, the war took from him his first and favored son, and, as the unforseen consequence of a wartime marriage, his beloved daughter. The same war, far from laying waste to Private Enterprise, boomed it and helped make Kennedy one of the world’s richest men—a far remove from the early Dreiseresque chapter in which Mr. Whalen describes the agony of Boston’s first Irish immigrants, their unconscionable exploitation by the Yankees. But other writers have looked more deeply into this last and found affinities between the harsh Calvinist soul of the first Bostonians and that of the later settlers who brought from Ireland a bleak, uniquely puritanical strain of Catholicism (which theologians have traced to Cromwell’s time and the exposure of exiled Irish priests to the heresy of Jansenism). For these poor Irishmen Boston, “cold and drear, the three hilled city of the Puritans,” was not so forbidding a refuge as it had been say, for the Quakers. In the hard climate of their spirit, where poverty and suffering were virtuous, and false assumptions about the perfectibility of man were the devil’s work, these immigrants enjoyed a perverse compatability with the ghosts of the departed Puritans. In this environment, where love of family flourished and with it the instinct to acquire and pass on property to the son, we draw near the psychic root of conservatism, with all its possibilities and perils. The climate is all repression here, as in the New England insurance industry; one inhabits the region distrustfully, defensively, where disaster threatens on every hand.

In Joseph Kennedy’s lifetime a quiet revolution has taken place in Massachusetts. The descendants of the recent immigrants have overwhelmed the WASP on his ancestor’s soil. But to outnumber the WASP is not to vanquish him, nor outmaneuver him; when the old majority becomes a new minority on his home ground, something new and prophetic has happened. The melting pot has melted very little; religious and “ethnic” identities may grow or shrink, they do not dissolve. A supreme politician in the Kennedy camp spoke this indisputable truth about Boston: “The voting blocs are like rocks grinding on each other. We [the Irish] are the big rock now and the Italians are grinding on us. But people never change. We ground the Yankees down, but you won’t see Teddy getting elected to the Somerset Club.”

Joseph Kennedy contended with this knowledge all his life—ingratiating himself with WASPs; introducing himself to the Prince of Wales on the glorious pretense that they had actually met before at “Bayard Tuckerman’s reception at the Myopia Hunt Club” (“Wasn’t that a grand party?”); seeing his wife and daughters bitchily snubbed by the ladies of proper Boston. Often he reacted—getting mad when Football Coach Harlow did not give Joe Jr. his “H”; getting mad because Charles Francis Adams of the Harvard Corporation determined that an ambassadorship was not of itself sufficient qualification for an Honorary Degree. His sons, “acculturating” in OK Episcopalian boarding schools, in not quite top drawer Harvard clubs, had it easier; still they must have been as acutely aware as a John O’Hara hero that for all their courage, energy, and shy, WASP-oriented charm, there was one impotent little world they would not make, that they were, as certain genteel ladies of the Eastern Seaboard say, NQOCD (“Not quite our class, dear”). The wonder of the Kennedys is not that they rose above that nastiness but that they created an OCD of their own, out of greater wealth and power than the old Adams “dynasty” would have dreamed of. Don’t get mad, get even.

Grievously absent from this book is a serious attempt to explain the triumphant fatherhood of Joseph Kennedy. How did he do it? To say “with his money” or “by driving his kids” is simple-minded. Our society, in which any boy is as good as any other boy, has never lacked for ruined progeny of the ascendant rich and mighty who had intended their boy to amount to something bigger still. The wonder is that not one of Joe Kennedy’s boys turned out a wreck; each one was able, in a fetching phrase of the family, to “go far.” What was the intangible which Kennedy gave his sons? Sheer love of family? The admirable balance between reproof and reward? The competitive disciplines of youth?—infusing moxie into the Episcopalian schoolboy game of touch football? Into the impeccably Bostonian sport of sailboat racing? (And none of that malarkey about “It matters not to win or…” The missing verb does not exist in this lexicon. Not even the Bay of Pigs was a defeat. For Joe Kennedy, it was the fault of CIA. “I know that outfit and I wouldn’t pay them a hundred bucks.”) Every parent is of course an embarrassment to his children. Was this father more of a trial than most? Mr. Whalen answers none of these questions but the last. The most starting but curiously moving of the anecdotes he has assembled was told by a distinguished Boston lawyer who has championed liberal causes since the Sacco-Vanzetti trials. In 1952 this lawyer won the support of hitherto distrustful labor unions and the ADA for Jack Kennedy as the liberal candidate for the Senate against Henry Cabot Lodge. Believing the candidate should, accordingly, take a liberal stand, he prepared a newspaper ad: COMMUNISM AND MCCARTHY: BOTH WRONG. Joe Kennedy’s rage was such that others in the room feared he would physically assault the lawyer. “You’re trying to ruin Jack. You and your sheeny friends are trying to ruin my son’s career,” he bellowed on and on “…you and your sheeny friends.” The next day Jack Kennedy tried to placate the insulted man. “How do you explain your father?” the lawyer asked. “I guess there isn’t a motive in it which I think you’d respect,” said Jack, “except love of family…And more often than not, I think that’s just pride.”

These proud men inhabit an overworld where grief is born in silence and all rivers flow in one direction—to “where the power is.” Power. Getting, losing, getting back Power. The power of Power. Power, the ultima ratio mundi. The difficulty with a consuming passion is that it can consume itself and its energies be lost for us. Power is an instrument of Government, but it is not Government; no more than personal magnetism and a lust to win are “Leadership.” The murdered President by the fact of his martyrdom did more to get a torpid nation “moving again” than was possible while he, his mythic virility, and electric presence were with us. One day his brothers in New York and Massachusetts, maneuvering to recapture the castle, having merged the Empire State with the Bay State in a new Power Base, may face the same problem. An exasperating riddle of ends and means: all the fighting, the driving will, the ego—what will they avail? And whom?

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