Catholic Book Club Discussion: 'The Patriarch'

Today the Catholic Book Club is discussing The Patriarch, David Nasaw's biography of Joseph P. Kennedy. In order to facilitate discussion, I offer some questions here for discussion. I welcome everyone to contribute answers to these questions, your own questions, or any reactions you have to the book.

1.  Having considered the entire life of Joseph Kennedy, from his days as “Honey Fitz’s son-in-law,” to his unrivaled financial success, to the death of his four eldest children and his own death, was Joseph Kennedy a happy man?

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2.  Knowing both the affection he showed his children and the way he conducted his own personal life, was he a good father?

3.  Do you agree with Richard Cardinal Cushing’s assessment of the American Hierarchy’s rejection of John F. Kennedy as a presidential candidate in 1960? (Nasaw, p723-725)  How has the 1960 election affected Catholic candidates for political office in the United States today?

I sincerely look forward to your responses.

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Tim Reidy
4 years 8 months ago

I will begin with some reflections on Kevin's first question. I am about halfway through the book. Joe Is in London as ambassador. He has sent his family back home to the United States following German aggression in Europe. He is doing all he can to prevent U.S. involvement in any war, which makes him very unpopular in London. Winston Churchill, a man Joe fears because of his hawkishness, is now prime minister. 

Is he happy? In his interview with Kevin, Professor Nasaw said that Kennedy was generally content until the death of his first son, Joe Jr. in the war. I, however, do not see a happy man. I see a man who is restless. Ambitious, yes, but also not entirely happy with the course of his life. He moves from one job to another, constantly travels and has a series of affairs. He takes pride in his Irish catholic heritage, but his faith doesn't seem to offer him much in the way of consolation. I do not mean to judge the man, but only note that like many human beings he seems to be in search of something he can't quite find.

More later...

Kevin Spinale
4 years 8 months ago
Tim - Part of Joe's discontent during his ambassadorship stems from FDR's treatment of him. For the first time since he began his career in banking, Joe Kennedy is not the most essential, the most dynamic individual in the institution or work that he has been appointed to manage. He is used by FDR because the State Department has realized that Joseph Kennedy will not take orders - nor will he alter his opinion on the war and his prediction regarding its outcome. He feels slighted by FDR. He wants to serve FDR and thinks that he is serving him by he continuing to hold rigidly his own ideas about Britain and its foreign affairs. He is mired in politics and manipulated by a man who is politically more astute than Joe Kennedy. FDR leaves Joe in the ambassadorship so as to eliminate the possibility of Joe returning from London and speaking out against America's support of Britain. FDR simply maneuvers around JPK. In the months before the war, JPK becomes more and more isolated and powerless. He becomes more and more irascible.
Tim Reidy
4 years 8 months ago

Good points Kevin. Joe is definitely discontent in London. But was he happy before he was sent to London? That may be the more interesting question. He is undoubtedly financially succesful. He has a big, beautiful family, and he is one of the most influential men in the country. But as I said, he seems restless. As Nasaw said in your interview, he is a man who gets angry a lot. Why do you think that is? 

Bill Mazzella
4 years 8 months ago
Certainly he was driven. Anyone who has had an immigrant father trying to deal with the barriers he contends with, has to have a lot of sympathy for the Patriarch. Too often the immigrant's trust is betrayed. So Joe Kennedy seems to have had the right approach in distrusting those who knew looked down upon him. He was no doubt happier than many disappointed and frustrated immigrants. He did dote on his children while very demanding. He provided well and demanded that they give a return for the gifts they had and the good life provided. His personal life was not a good example and many of his children and grandchildren continued his adulterous ways. At the same time his children were marvelously close to one another. The American Hierarchy did not support JFK as president. But their influence was just as little then as it is now as 80% of Catholics voted for Kennedy. The 1960 election certainly cleared the way for Catholic candidates and made the religious objection much less so.
Kevin Spinale
4 years 8 months ago
Mr. Mazzella - Thank you for your point regarding the influence of the hierarchy in the election of JFK to the presidency. Indeed, the amount of influence that the hierarchy has on national elections is unclear, even today. Though, Joe Kennedy felt betrayed by Card. Spellman and others whom he supported with huge financial contributions. JPK simply could not understand why the hierarchy would not enthusiastically endorse John. Regarding JPK's background: one of the lessons I learned in reading Prof. Nasaw's biography was the story of JPK's family. His father - Patrick Kennedy - was not an immigrant. He was a successful banker in East Boston. JPK's father was a taciturn, prudent, genteel political tactician and ward boss. JPK grew up in an affluent home. JPK's grandfather immigrated from Ireland and died quite young. His grandmother was a successful shop-owner in East Boston.
Bill Mazzella
4 years 8 months ago
Kevin, If I remember correctly, in "America's Pope", Spellman is quoted as complaining after a phone call with Joe Kennedy Sr. that "He is a very evil man." Which leads me to conjecture that Joe got even in some ways. Thank you for the correction as to JPK's immigrant status. At the same time he had that feeling that most immigrants have of being a forever outsider and being betrayed by the upper class.
Tim Reidy
4 years 8 months ago

Another thought: because the reader knows what's going to happen to Kennedy's five oldest children, the book imparts a powerful sense of foreboding. What I find most tragic is the fate of young Rosemary. While Joe and Kathleeen die in plane crashs, and Jack and Bobby from assassin's bullets, Rosemary is lobotomized at Joe's request and spends the rest of her life away from her family. I am interested to read about how this affected Joe. In his defense, the procedure was little used at the time and doctors did not know its full effects.

It is very sad to read about how confused the family is by her condition. Here is a case where Joe's can-do attitude really was not helpful. He is intent helping Rosemary, but the fact was that there wasn't much he could do other than provide a loving home. And yet he separates her from the family at a key moment in their lives: when war begins in earnest, all of the Kennedy are sent home except Rosemary, because Joe thinks she is receiving better care in London. 

I guess this gets to Kevin's question about whether Joe was a good father. He definitely provided for his children, and engendered among them a profound dedication to public service. But I am sometimes put off by his parenting style. He is constantly coaching his kids. I understand the desire to see your children succeed, but oftentimes he doesn't let them be themselves.

Bill Mazzella
4 years 8 months ago
"In 1941, when Rosemary was 23, doctors told her father that a new neurosurgical procedure, lobotomy, would help calm her mood swings and sometimes-violent outbursts." From Wikipedia. Doesn't this excuse JPK more. At that time little was known about lobotomy. Also, it might be too harsh about judging moving a virtually incapacitated child or not. It became especially popular from the 1960's on to not "coach" one's children. He was very clear that they should attend Mass every week even if he let them pursue their sexual "freedom." At least with the boys. It is a delicate balance as to the style of parenting. As one who believed in letting my children be themselves, I sometimes wonder whether I should not have done more coaching.
Tim Reidy
4 years 8 months ago

I see your point on parenting, Bill. On Rosemary's behavior, Nasaw doesn't say anything, as far as I can remember, about violent outbursts.

Kevin Spinale
4 years 8 months ago
Regarding Rosemary, Nasaw quotes Rose Kennedy's memoirs: "'In the year or so following her [Rosemary's] return from England...disquieting symptoms began to develop. Not only was there retrogression in the mental skills she had worked so hard to attain, but her customary good nature gave way increasingly to tension and irritability. She was upset easily and unpredictable. Some of these upsets became tantrums, or rages, during which she broke things or hit out at people. Since she was quite strong, her blows were hard. Also there were convulsive episodes.'" (532) Nasaw goes on to speculate that the move from a convent in the English countryside to a residence school - St. Gertrude's - in DC exacerbated Rosemary's condition, or added this component of violent outburst and irritability. She did not wish to be locked up any more. Joseph Kennedy, as he had done with his sickly son, Jack, sought any medical experts that would provide him a solution - a cure for Rosemary's condition. The surgery that incapacitated her was intended to make her life better. Nasaw explains that Rosemary was seldom ever spoken of by her family after the surgery in1941. He also concludes his account of Rosemary's condition with the following, quite chilling, statement from Rose Kennedy's memoirs: "'Rosemary's...was the first of the tragedies that would befall us.'" (537)
Tim Reidy
4 years 8 months ago

Thanks. Kevin, I think I am just about to reach this part of the book.

Kevin Spinale
4 years 8 months ago
Two points that go along with the discussion thus far: First, Prof. Nasaw includes the account of a fascinating interview of Joe Kennedy from the Boston Herald in 1948. The reporter, Bill Cunningham (a precursor, perhaps, of the famous NY Times style photographer - from Boston as well) asked Joe about his "aspirations for his children." (619) Nasaw records JPK declaring to Cunningham: "'In two words, it's Public Service.'" (ibid.) Nasaw includes the rest of JPK's response: "'Please don't misunderstand me as trying to imply that my children are any smarter or any more qualified than anyone else's children. But we chance to be in a position in which they can be spared the necessity of supporting themselves. Spared that, why shouldn't they better try to qualify to serve their country in some needed capacity, great or small, as they can prove themselves worthy?'" (619) Second, as far as JPK's disposition toward FDR and the rise of his own contemptuous (quite publicly contemptuous) nature, Nasaw offers the following thoughtful paragraph: "In the end, he [JPK] failed to understand what was required of him in a wartime emergency. 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 remain a trusted and vital part of the Roosevelt team." (518) Indeed, such fiercely independent thinking was one of the things that got him a seat at the table in the first place. He could not turn off such self-regard and successful strong-willed-ness to be a member of any team. A patriarch does not yield to another patriarch unless he is defeated in battle or outwitted - as Jacob had outwitted Esau.

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