The Kennedy Fascination
I work with Jim Neff at the Seattle Times. He has overseen our coverage of stories that won three Pulitzer Prizes. In addition to being an editor who supervises investigative journalists, Jim has written four of his own books – now five, including Vendetta. One notable book is The Wrong Man, in which Neff dove into the case of Dr. Sam Sheppard, the Cleveland physician who was accused of murdering his wife in 1954, convicted and served 12 years before being found not guilty in a retrial. But Sheppard was never quite vindicated in the public eye; Neff researched the forensic evidence and came to some definitive conclusions about who the real killer actually was.
I know Jim is a scrupulous researcher and reporter, and I know how many books about the Kennedy family he read in his research for Vendetta. So I asked Jim for his suggestions of best books about the Kennedys. What a star-crossed family they were; so gifted, and so dogged by tragedy. I think those of us of a certain age will never lose their fascination with this amazing family of men and women:
First up, based on the subject of Vendetta, is Evan Thomas’ 2000 book Robert Kennedy: His Life. Thomas, a seasoned journalist and author, had already published books about the Central Intelligence Agency and Edward Bennett Williams, the high-profile Washington lawyer who represented Jimmy Hoffa and did back channel leaking of information about Hoffa to the Kennedys (so much for attorney-client privilege). Thomas’ biography is another scrupulously researched book, which deconstructed the liberal halo attached to Bobby Kennedy, especially after his assassination. Bobby Kennedy did believe in the cause of civil rights, but also authorized FBI wiretaps on Martin Luther King, Jr. This book sounds like a valuable addition to Neff’s book, which portrays Bobby Kennedy as something of a pit bull, indefatigably loyal to his president brother but willing to push the envelope to advance his agenda.
Next up is a book I would really like to read, because its focus is the man who put the wheels of the Kennedy dynasty in motion: Joseph P. Kennedy, Bobby and John Kennedy’s father, who seems to have decided that one of his kids would be president while they were still running around in short pants at Hyannisport. Neff recommends David Nasaw’s The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy. This book sounds so fascinating, I am going to run right out and check it out when we are done.
Nasaw portrayed Kennedy, Boston grandson of Irish immigrants, as a complex welter of contradictions. His family was wealthy and he went to all the right schools, but he was from the wrong side of Boston and was never able to feel entirely at home with the privileged classes.
A devoted and loving, if meddlesome, father and family man, he conducted affairs with high profile women such as Gloria Swanson and Claire Booth Luce. He was a Wall Street manipulator, and also the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the governmental entity that is supposed to regulate Wall Street. He was the U.S. ambassador to Britain in the runup to World War II, which was unfortunate because he was also grotesquely anti-Semitic and a dyed-in-the-wool isolationist. Whatever you might think of Joseph Kennedy by the end of this book, you have to feel for him; he died in 1969 having outlived four of his nine children.
Next up are two books about John F. Kennedy.
The first is Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963. This 2003 book, which the New York Times called an impressively judicious and balanced account of Kennedy’s life and presidency, broke new ground in its research and findings on John Kennedy – for example, Dallek managed to access previously undisclosed material on John Kennedy’s many health problems (as well as his relentless womanizing, including a long affair with a 19-year-old intern).
Dallek’s bottom line about Kennedy was that he was a very able president, despite his secret life and his struggles with pain caused by several medical conditions, including colitis, a deteriorating back and Addison’s disease. He gives Kennedy credit for defusing the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, the confrontation over Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. If he had lived, Dallek supposed that Kennedy might have been able to avoid the nightmarish war in Vietnam.
The second JFK book on Neff’s list is Richard Reeves’ President Kennedy: A Profile in Power. It’s been more than 20 years since this book was published in 1993. While many portraits of the Kennedys have emphasized their idealism, Reeves portrays John Kennedy as more of a pragmatist. For example, he didn’t exactly break ground in his support of the civil rights movement; he declined to meet with March on Washington organizers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Roy Wilkins before the event – he was afraid the event might spin out of control – , but eventually capitalized on it as a showcase for support of civil rights legislation he had pending in Congress.
Finally, a book about Edward Kennedy – Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography by Burton Hersh.
This book is a psychologically acute portrait, according to reviewers. It portrays Edward Kennedy as an extremely talented politician and born liberal who could not shake off his family’s distinctive brand of bad luck. Hersh covered Kennedy for decades, which could have compromised his work. Instead, it seems to have made for a richer portrait – reviewers praised the book for its insight but said Hersh didn’t pull any punches when it came to documenting Edward Kennedy’s flaws.