Joseph K.

The Founding Father: The Story of Joseph P. Kennedy

by Richard J. Whalen
The New American Library, 486 pp., $6.95

Joseph Kennedy
Joseph Kennedy; drawing by David Levine

This efficient book begins with Joseph Patrick Kennedy in the innocent June of 1911—big, handsome red headed, a substitute first-baseman for Harvard. They were ahead in the big game with Yale, when, to the surprise of his teammates in the last half of the ninth inning with two men out, the Harvard captain called time out, and waved in, of all people, Joe Kennedy, a sworn enemy of his, who caught the ball on first base, and made the final play. Leaving the diamond on the last victory of a brilliant career, the Captain asked for the ball as a trophy. Since Kennedy was not on the team that year and was beholden to the Captain for letting him win the “H” he had not earned, the request was not unreasonable. Joe Kennedy just struck the ball in his pocket. “I made the put out, didn’t I?” he said and moved truculently off. Long afterward when his teammates asked why he had been so considerate that day, the sheepish ex-Captain confessed: some days before the game he had had a visit from some associates of Patrick Joseph Kennedy of the Boston City Council. The men happened to have heard that the Harvard Captain planned after graduation to apply to the city for a license to operate a movie theater. If the young man expected that license, Pat Kennedy’s son had better win that letter.

This book concludes with Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy at seventy-six, former Chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission, of the U.S. Maritime Commission, Roosevelt’s envoy to the Court of St. James, stricken with an intracranial thrombosis, last seen as a figure of vast resignation—mute, paralyzed, in his Hyannisport bedroom late in the November afternoon of the funeral, seated before the blank, devastated television screen from which his hero-son had passed into legend. “When the going gets tough,” Joe Kennedy used to tell his growing boys, inculcating that strain of ambition he would call “moxie” and Max Lerner “hubris,” “that’s when the tough get going.” The proof of that humble apophthegm is the career of this phenomenal American, more phenomenal than any or all of his descendents, who out of some Gargantuan urge to establish his line exhorted, subsidized and dragooned his sons into politics to create new dimensions of power that touch on the metaphysical.

Richard J. Whalen, an editor of Fortune and an alert young man, younger even than Teddy K., has compiled a solid journalistic biography. He has drawn from authorities as diverse as Henry Adams and Oscar Handlin on the curious social and political structure of Boston; from the spate of contemporary prose, mostly fatuous and ephemeral, that has been manufactured about, for, and now and then by Kennedys, from newspaper files and public documents. These secondary sources are embellished by unpublished materials on the life of the progenitor and, most importantly, by interviews with old…

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