Recessional Two; The Kennedys

As of this November, it seems very likely that no member of the Kennedy family bearing the name will hold elective federal office--Associated Press.

What one has to understand about the rise of America--and for that matter, the Cold War, which is unimaginable without that country--is that in many ways, 'America' for most of the period of its great power was a sort of seventeenth century throwback. Beneath the skin and apparent reality of liberalism, and the cod-Roman humanism, the very real energies and darkness, and humanity, of a Jacobean play flowed.

I think that this manifested itself in several ways. It was not simply to be seen in the freewheeling dispropriation, or the violence, or the racism, nor in the very seventeenth-century sense that the courts in the twentieth century acted like a third branch of government that Edward Coke would have understood. Nor is the academic demonstration that immigrant catholics and jews were trained by social mechanisms in that republic to hold three incompatible identities--those of race, religion and citizen--in their heads and families at once, consociationally and with great effect.

I think that it was best seen in the melodramatic and intensely baroque ambitions of the likes of Joe Kennedy, son-in-law of the Wexford labourer and Mayor, Honey Fitz and the planned father of four presidents and of a political style that straddled the millennium.

I had planned to write a long post on this style--on the Kennedys, who rose and fell with cocktails and Hollywood and Playboy, and Raoul Lufbery and John Purroy Mitchel, as much as with Chicago and the Navy--but, this afternoon I find myself diverted, completely.

How can I, for instance, present the Kennedys as a baroque tale when I know the story of Korea under Chun doo-hwan? He rose to power by forming a secret military and intelligence club (like the Italian P-2). A member of that club, who happened to be the head of the Korean CIA, then entered the room of the president, who was being sung to by a famous Korean singer whilst crying for the wife lost in an assassination five years before, and shot him and his bodyguards. Subsequently, a network of Roman Catholic politicians, some saved by Pope John Paul II from death, were all that stood between Korea and permanent darkness lit only by plutonium and gunpowder and hell. Ronald Reagan in person begged Chan not to develop nuclear weapons; in response, Chan agreed, fearing his own side, but took out frustrations on his mistresses, some of whom, it is popularly believed, were ordered to have their wombs surgically removed by his wife.

Now, when you know that, the Kennedys seem, well, quaintly second league. Yes, there were deaths (not least those of the three sons of Joseph Kennedy who preceded Edward, and Mary Jo, and others); lobotomies and abortions; captured Cardinals, and keen journalistic adventure; there was intense corruption, and grand, sweeping, Graachi-type emotion. There was a style of tax cuts and Pigouvian intervention in the environment, and a type of ruthless politics that owed as much to Florence as Boston. But really, what is there to say? They were there in Washington from 1946, and now they are not. They join the Symingtons and Roosevelts in the history books of the republic.

For once, I cannot think of anything to write. DBC Reed, one of my regular correspondents, has also provoked a line of thought in me when discussing Gerald Manley Hopkins in the Wilfred Owen post below. I don't like Hopkins, and think that the Wreck of the Deutschland is one step away from a sort of gay version of 'The Bridge on the Silvery Tay', which is ridiculous and infamous. But DBC likes 'pied beauty', because it suggests that good and evil can never be untangled. Perhaps I should have taken my cue from that.

Who knows? When its clear that the Kennedys have finally gone away, maybe I will write on them then. They make me think immediately of two deep things; Reg Gadney's book on JFK that my father bought me once from a balcony bookshop in corby, and whose picture of JFK being interviewed by Roger Mudd about Vietnam still hangs on my wall, and the Martin Sheen biopic I spent most of my first ever wage packet on in ASDA when I was 16. What I cannot seem to summon up is any sort of engaged blog post on the lost royals of the republic. There is too much water under that broken bridge, for me, as there was ultimately for Joe over Europe, and for Ted and Mary Jo, and for John at the underpass, and John-John in his plane.

Sweet Adeline was a Kennedy favourite. All the Kennedys took their cue from Honey Fitz, and sang it as a prelude in their minds to 'hail to the chief'. I think that the bar-rooms and cultures to which it appealed would be very difficult to find now. I was going to post the original, sung by Ted Kennedy, but, well, it was awful, so here is another reflection on things gone which is round about the same level and appropriate to this demented blog.

Eternal recurrence, remember, is what we are doomed to without the faith of Christ and the example of the cross to break the cycle. Life and dynasties slip around and away, like the windmills of the mind.



I think the Kennedy legacy truly passed away with the death of Teddy. You mentioned the influence (an understatement) of the patriarch Joe Kennedy upon his children. You get the sense that it was his frustrated ambition (wrong time and place for him) that fired up to the next generation in heroic and quixotic actions that oftentimes resulted in amoral actions and death. The tragedy of the Kennedy's can be summed up in a very poignant scene where Teddy informs his paralyzed father that Bobby had just been assassinated in Los Angeles. Helpless, but you can imagine what he was feeling and thinking at that moment in the wheelchair, only a tear came down his cheek on his frozen face. Sad, very sad.....that is the legacy of the Kennedy's. If opera is around in 200 years - I fervently hope so - then there will be an opera called Kennedy. One could only imagine what Shakespeare could have done with such material also.
Martin Meenagh said…
I suppose that the influence of Joe was that his children were a sort of extension of himself, to him (though only Robert actually seemed to share his monstrous capacity for hating, Joe Jnr seems in his short life to have shared the qualities of the bully), though I notice Teddy was named after his old bagman Eddy Moore rather than himself or blood.

He was a presidential prospect in 1940, of course, which is why FDR got him out of the country. I own a copy of his collected letters as Ambassador to the UK, and find them fascinating--I think it believable that he may have known of, or even been, 'the Doctor', Ribbentrop's mole in London. Yet he also seems to have been naive--he fell for Churchill's old India trick of mixing whiskey and water in a high glass and sipping to feed his idea that WSC was a permanent drunk.

Joe Kennedy was a monster, but no more so than Henry Ford, I guess. I agree with you about the poignancy of the end, and the opera. I don't believe, by the way, that he can be said to have completely bought the 1960 election. I've always thought that one of the persuasive reasons put forward why Nixon didn't challenge the result on the basis of the Democrat ballots in Illinois was that Republicans had irregularities of their own in Florida and California that cancelled them out; what won it was Robert and John's decision against his advice to intervene with Martin King and win black votes by doing the right thing.

Many thanks for your comment

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