All in the Family

Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy

by Herbert S. Parmet
Dial, 586 pp., $14.95

Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance

by Michael R. Beschloss
Norton, 318 pp., $14.95

Somewhere in the clouds over the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, or wherever his soul resides, Joseph P. Kennedy must be smiling. Having labored to immortalize himself through the greater glory of his nine children—or at least his four sons, whose careers he orchestrated as surrogates of his own—he has now succeeded. A man whose greatest talent lay in making money, and whose goal in life was to preserve as much as possible—“an Irish Sammy Glick…driven by nothing beyond personal gratification, which included his immediate family as an extension of himself,” in Herbert Parmet’s unkind but not inaccurate phrase—he was neither a particularly admirable nor even a significant figure in American life. His claim to our attention comes not from his public positions, but from his private ones. It is as sire that Joseph P. Kennedy is renowned. His is a case of the virtues of the sons being visited upon the father.

Having grasped after but never fully attained the heights of power he felt were his due, he was determined to achieve them through his progeny. His instrument was to be his eldest son, but when Joseph, Jr., was killed in the war, the mantle then passed to the second son. “I got Jack into politics, I was the one,” the elder Kennedy said to an interviewer. “I told him Joe was dead and that therefore it was his responsibility to run for Congress. He didn’t want it. He felt he didn’t have the ability and he still feels that way. But I told him he had to.”

Jack’s responsibility? To whom? Certainly not to himself, for the father had earlier planned on the illness-prone second son becoming a university president. No, the responsibility was to the father’s unfulfilled ambitions. I told him he had to. And John F. Kennedy—sickly, diffident, insecure, overshadowed by the brother who bore his father’s name and his father’s dreams (“I’m not bright like my brother Joe,” Jack once confessed to his college adviser)—did as he was told.

Well, the rest, as they say, is history. But not so well known a story as we might think. Herbert Parmet’s Jack, despite a title that trivializes a serious and scrupulously researched work, for the first time puts the Kennedy story into perspective. Parmet provides a great deal of fascinating information, even for those, like myself, who thought they could never bear to read another word about the Kennedys: Although far too long (this volume takes Jack only to the 1960 election), it moves along smartly and is filled with fascinating detail. For the first time someone has told the Kennedy story straight. Now psychohistorians can go to work on this superman of our own creation, John F. Kennedy.

He was, of course, no superman at all. In fact, some of the time he could barely get out of bed, suffering as he did from scarlet fever, backaches, a wartime wound, and later Addison’s disease. He was our sickliest president. “At least one-half of the…

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