I've just finished David Nasaw's 800 pp. biography of Joe Kennedy - The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (Penguin, 2012).
In his Introduction the author indicates his desire to situate the popular image of Kennedy as "an appeaser, an isolationist, an anti-Semite, a Nazi sympathizer, an unprincipled womanizer, a treacherous and vengeful scoundrel," etc., in "a larger, grander, more complicated history." Admittedly, we are all complicated characters, and the personal Kennedy story is only of interest as part of the complicated history of the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Unfortunately deprived by history and our constitution of the benefits of having real royalty, Americans have learned to live with celebrity faux royalty, of whom the most prominent have obviously been the Kennedy family. And that clearly accounts for our continuing interest in all things Kennedy. And virtually everything Kennedy goes back to Joe, whose fantastic wealth and obsessive ambition for himself and his sons set it all in motion.
The general outline of Kennedy's story is familiar enough - especially to those of us above a certain age who remember when Kennedy wealth and ambition had a major impact on American politics and history. The story has several strands. There is the Boston Irish story. There is the successful businessman story. There is the appeaser Ambassador story. And there is the family story. It is the latter which is the connecting link through it all. The heir of a wealthy Boston-Irish political family, united by marriage with another wealthy, prominent, Boston-Irish political family, founded a moneyed political dynasty energized by intense, seemingly unlimited ambition.
Kennedy was a devoted father, and everything we have heard from his children over the years clearly confirms the image of him as the loving father who motivated his children and enabled their own ambitions. Parental love is generally speaking a good thing, of course. Prescinding from the complicated case of the unfortunate Rosemary, it cannot be denied that the other eight Kennedy children experienced their father as a genuinely loving, affirming force in their lives (albeit at times a controlling and demanding one). So much of what Kennedy did - including what he did wrong - can be blamed on his devotion to and ambition for his family. As FDR perceptively observed, what Kennedy cared about above all was preserving his fortune for his children. "Joe," FDR observed, was "terrifically spoiled at an early age by huge financial success; thoroughly patriotic, thoroughly obsessed with the idea that he must leave each of his nine children with a million dollars apiece, when he dies" and "had a positive horror of any change in the present methods of life in America."
But the crucial lesson Joe Kennedy's tragically ambitious life highlights is the corrupting character of wealth - a not insignificant lesson today as our society seems increasingly to value wealth above all else. It was Kennedy's wealth, after all, which gave him his independence and facilitated his ambition. It was his wealth which made him a figure to be reckoned with, whom even FDR had to cater to. But it also enabled him (in the bad sense). It enabled him not to have to learn how to subordinate his will and his ambition to anything larger than himself and his dynastic concerns, to learn to use his admitted intelligence and talents for anything bigger than. himself and his dynastic concerns.
Commenting on Kennedy's dramatic failure as ambassador, Nasaw writes: "Joseph P. Kennedy had battled all his life to become an insider, to get inside the boston banking establishment, inside Hollywood, inside the Roosevelt circle of trusted advisers. but he had never been able to accept the reality that being an 'insider' meant sacrificing something to the team. His sense of his own wisdom and unique talents was so overblown that he truly believed he could stake out an independent position for himself and still remains a trusted and vital part of the Roosevelt team."