Twice-Told Tale

The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys

by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon and Schuster, 932 pp., $22.95

Columbia Point, that spit of land—once a dump—extending out into Dorchester Bay, contains an old sewage pumping station, the new overextended brick bulk of Boston’s University of Massachusetts, an ill-considered public housing project now in the process of demolition, and at the point’s very tip the Kennedy Museum and Library. Seen from the mid-distance of the Fitzgerald Expressway the museum’s confluence of gleaming white cubes and curves and dark glass set against the background of Boston Harbor is haunting. If one did not know what it was, one would want to stop to find out.

On a snow-littered spring morning I stand in the museum’s atrium, its skeletal eight stories soaring up like a glass cathedral, encompassed on three sides by the sea. Ahead of me, almost at my feet, Boston Harbor with its islands, one of the world’s loveliest approaches. Across the bay to the left the South Boston three-decker houses, masked by distance, intriguing as a toy town. Herring gulls, cormorants, a freighter moving out behind Spectacle Island, under the great arch of the sky. Here the pull of the Kennedy saga becomes almost tangible. The myth is here too, artfully contrived. As I walk through the museum my mind keeps going back to the mausoleum in Red Square, the echoing stairways, the empty passages, and finally at the core the wax simulacre of the man who shook the world. Here at Columbia Point the stairway, the passages with pointing arrows, and at the core a re-creation of the White House Oval Office just as it was on that fateful November 22, 1963.

Beyond the myth one fixes on the dynastic tragedy of the Kennedys, tragedy in the ineluctable sense. Fate: the father in his blinkered inexorable quest for power, for the royal equivalent. The hubris of power attained. Nemesis: four children of great promise to die violently. And at the drama’s close a spent old man, bereft of movement, bereft of speech, waiting for the end. The tale is, indeed, as Doris Goodwin writes, one “repeated in three generations, of great achievements followed by decline and failure—self-inflicted or at the hands of a merciless fate.”

Tourists trek to the museum as if it were a shrine. The legend persists. Boylston Street, which runs from Harvard Square to the stadium, has just become JFK Street. There is even an annual Kennedy picture calendar. Books proliferate. The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys is one of the longest, its 932 pages stopping short at Jack Kennedy’s inauguration. An immediate best seller, it may well prove to be the most widely read of the Kennedy books. According to Doris Goodwin it took her ten years to write. Minutely researched, with sources unavailable to earlier biographers, her book is a labor of love. And that is its flaw. During the years Mrs. Goodwin was working on it, Peter Collier and David Horowitz were finishing their own book on the Kennedys. Shortly after …

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Letters

Did Nixon Beat Kennedy? November 10, 1988

It Rhymes with Fitz October 8, 1987

JFK’s Triumph October 8, 1987