Commentary Magazine


Joe Kennedy Innocent of One Charge, Guilty of the Rest

On a list of prominent 20th-century Americans who were easy to dislike, Joseph P. Kennedy has to rank near the top.

The father of our 35th president was widely reviled in his own time as an unscrupulous operator in the worlds of high finance and politics. Having invested heavily in the presidential candidacy of Franklin Roosevelt, he was rewarded by FDR first with the post of chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission (Roosevelt famously defended his appointment of a man thought to be a crook with the quip that it “takes one to catch one”) and then with the post of U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, where his anti-Semitism and support of appeasement of the Nazis was particularly damaging. A master of insider trading and market manipulation, he was also long rumored to be connected with the Mafia and to have made a fortune in bootlegging during Prohibition as a bootlegger.

But according to author Daniel Okrent, the elder Kennedy was innocent of one of these charges: bootlegging. In an excerpt from his new history of Prohibition published by the Daily Beast, Okrent writes that whatever else you can pin on the Kennedy patriarch, including his serial philandering, he wasn’t a bootlegger. Okrent’s research shows that despite his other nefarious activities, Kennedy’s involvement in the liquor industry was strictly legal. Prior to the repeal of Prohibition, he had sold liquor via legal “medicinal” permits. After it ended, with the help of FDR’s son James, Kennedy obtained import agreements to sell various British whiskey and gin, which added to his already considerable fortune. But, the former New York Times ombudsman says, there is no evidence that he illegally brought in hooch during Prohibition. The “bootlegger” charge is, he believes, a legend that grew up long after the time when these actions supposedly took place.

It’s an interesting point but shouldn’t change anyone’s opinion of the old reprobate. Joseph P. Kennedy was a despicable person on so many levels and his involvement in our national life was generally so malevolent that the fact that there is one less crime on his charge sheet doesn’t make him more attractive. Indeed, as one reader said in a response to the excerpt posted by the Daily Beast, “I would have respected Joseph Kennedy more if he HAD been a bootlegger.”