The Kennedys, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz
The Kennedys: An American Drama.
by Peter Collier and David Horowitz.
Summit Books. 576 pp. $20.95.
The United States, a republic, covers itself in shame when it is false to its republicanism. That is the moral of the audacious attempt by Joseph P. Kennedy to turn his progeny into a surrogate royal family, an attempt ignobly assisted by the liberal media of the East Coast and by a crowd of court historians and other pliant academics. It has all ended in tears as the third generation of the would-be dynasty squanders its lives in drugs and drink or sensibly flees into obscurity. Peter Collier and David Horowitz tell this cautionary tale with relish and some notable omissions. Reading their account, one cannot help comparing the fate of the Kennedys with the House of Omri. Certainly, Joseph, Sr. “wrought evil in the sight of the Lord” and his heirs did the same; and the nemesis that overtook the family has the ring of Elijah’s curse: “I will not bring the evil in his days but in his son’s days will I bring the evil upon his house.”
To succeed, a dynasty must be philoprogenitive, and old Joe scored heavily in this respect. He had nine children (and in due course thirty grandchildren, eleven by Bobby Kennedy alone), and in addition to his lawful sexual activities he engaged in coarse promiscuity all his active adult life. Aside from his flamboyant affair with Gloria Swan-son, most of his innumerable adventures were brief, insensitive couplings with chorus girls, Hollywood bit players, or any passing female likely to be attracted by his money or bullied into bed by his crude masculinity. These included house guests at Hyannis and the wives of dependent associates. John F. Kennedy once related that a friend of his sisters’ was awakened by the Ambassador (as he insisted on being called) taking off his robe by her bed and informing her: “This is going to be something you’ll always remember.” Resistance was liable to be met by the threat, “Your husband is just a two-bit politician and I can kill his career.”
Old Joe made little attempt to conceal his behavior from his wife, Rose, who had to put up with much other inconsiderate and egotistical treatment from him. She affected to ignore it all and this, in turn, evoked contempt as well as sympathy from her children. As JFK put it, “My mother is a nothing.”
The sons reacted in various ways to their father’s boorishness. Bobby, here presented as an archetypal Irish puritan, was even more philoprogenitive than his father, but severely chaste. Teddy conformed to type: the Chappaquiddick affair was a not uncharacteristic episode in a life marked from the start by reckless self-indulgence. JFK reproduced his father’s promiscuity with almost mechanical fidelity from his teens onward, before and after marriage, before and after becoming President. He conducted his liaisons at the lowest level of locker-room masculinity, in the drearily competitive spirit which was the invariable Kennedy approach to anything. He seems to have picked his friend Lem Billings at least in part because of the latter’s striking failure with women (as well as his willingness to swap seats when JFK was flagged down by cops). His puerile boasting in conversation and letters (“I can now get tail as often and as free as I want”) makes painful reading, as do stories of his deserting his newly-wed Jacqueline at parties in hot pursuit of stewardesses and the like, usually in the company of his gruesome crony, Senator George Smathers. According to this account, JFK rarely bothered to discover even the first names of his “stands,” who were often delivered and dispatched by a Kennedy factotum. One woman is quoted: “He was as compulsive as Mussolini. Up against the wall, Signora, if you have five minutes, that sort of thing.”
The cataloguing of the sexual excesses of the Kennedy family is the most striking aspect of the Collier and Horowitz account, as no doubt it was the easiest to compile. In most other respects, the book is unsatisfactory. It is manifestly unfair to the Kennedys, since it dwells on their weaknesses and vices—including the bitchiness with which their women treated female interlopers and new arrivals—without really exploring the strengths of the clan: their courage, self-discipline, industry, their sense of service as well as self-service, and the genuine streak of idealism which, however faint at times, was inextricably mixed with their ruthless pursuit of power and position. To play down this side of the Kennedy record not only unbalances the book but makes the Kennedy story inexplicable. How could such monsters, one asks, impress themselves so forcefully on the nation, indeed on the world? How could they dupe so many intelligent and able people who were, at least in part, privy to their secrets?
These are not the only questions that Collier and Horowitz leave unanswered. They are weak on the subject of money, yet money is the key to the Kennedy success, the engine which alone drove Joseph, Sr.’s public career (such as it was) and, far more importantly, which powered JFK’s rise, from the moment in 1952 when the family, beaten in its effort to capture the Democratic machine in Massachusetts, decided to build and finance one of its own.
What we need is a detailed description of how old Joe built up his fortune and how, once it existed, he deployed it. What we get are scraps. We learn that at age twenty-five he made himself the youngest bank president in the country by using his inside knowledge as a state bank examiner; that he played the stock market by taking part in such quasi-illegal devices as “stock-pool” trading (i.e., creating a bull market in a stock, then pulling out); that he helped to beat off a bear raid on Hertz cars, and made a killing; that he was a highly successful bear in 1929, thus helping to intensify the crash while enriching himself. He made another fortune (and mistresses) in Hollywood finance, chiefly through RKO, and later pulled off some immensely profitable deals in New York real estate. But this is anecdotage rather than systematic treatment. We are not told what old Joe was worth when he first bought his way into public service under Roosevelt or how his assets were disposed when his son became President or what conflicts of interest there were between the Kennedy fortune and the Kennedys as officeholders.
There is even less information about the way the old man financed his boys. We are told that he “didn’t want his children to enter business”; they were bred for political power. JFK, entering the House, reflected: “Well, I guess if you don’t want to work for a living, this is as good a job as any.” He remarked rather sourly that he was running for President “because it is the only thing for me to do.” Like royalty, he did not carry money, but charged everything or borrowed when cash was required, so that friends had to submit expense accounts to the family financial department. The old man asked Smathers to explain to JFK how to handle money as though it were “the facts of life” but this, said a friend, was “like trying to tell a nun about sex.” We learn that Joe, exasperated, once accused JFK of “spending $50,000 [a year] on incidentals,” but we are not told what he spent altogether, or, in precise terms, how the old man financed his sons, or how he left his money when he died, or how the clan’s finances are managed now.
Nor are we given much information about the scale on which old Joe financed the political careers of his sons, though it is clear he spent his money freely. For instance, when JFK successfully challenged Senator Lodge for his Senate seat in 1952, the support of the hitherto conservative Boston Post, which began to attack Lodge and eventually gave a front-page endorsement to Kennedy, was bought by a “substantial loan” from his father. How much? On what terms? Was it ever repaid? We are not told. Again, the 1960 election, in which Kennedy beat Nixon, was among the most corrupt of modern times: JFK nudged Humphrey out of the Democratic nomination by flooding the West Virginia primary with money. How much? How was it spent? Again, what was the sum total the old man paid to make his son President? The authors do not say.
Their treatment of the whole 1960 election, the crucial event in the history of the family, is curiously brief. We hear nothing of how the Kennedy people turned up the studio heating during the first television confrontation, to make Nixon sweat. There is no discussion of the fake returns in Illinois and Texas, which probably gave Kennedy the White House. I say “curiously,” because the authors seem anxious throughout to denigrate the Kennedys but not in any way to put the record straight for the benefit of their Republican opponents. This book is an attack, but an attack from the Left. Collier and Horowitz are not seeking to write revisionist history.
It is important to bear all this in mind when assessing the treatment here of the more sinister aspects of the Kennedy record. In their heyday, the Kennedys were treated as the American equivalent of British royalty; the truth is they were never a reigning family in this sense, but more like a famiglia. JFK may have been, as his admirers proclaimed, a Renaissance man, but there were many varieties of Renaissance men. A foreign statesman, returning from a visit to Washington in 1961, and asked to describe the set-up now that the Kennedys has assumed power, summed up laconically: “Rather like the Borgia Brothers taking over a respectable North Italian town.”
There was, indeed, always a slight whiff of sulfur about Joseph, Sr. In the 1920’s, he had almost certainly been in the liquor trade, possibly (as was later claimed) in partnership wth the mobster Frank Costello, possibly also in rivalry with the gangster Meyer Lansky. Throughout his life he conducted many of his important deals in the greatest secrecy, alone or with one or two of his closest associates. He was away from home “on business” for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. He seems to have acted as an informer for the FBI, providing details of the Communist sympathies of former associates in the movie industry. He liked to remain highly liquid: James Landis said he was one of the few wealthy men who could back a check for $10 million with ready cash. He had stacks of money in bills on hand for political operations. We have it on the authority of Tip O’Neill that a favored candidate could visit old Joe’s office in New York and expect to leave with “maybe $50,000 or $60,000 in his valise.”
The fact that Bobby Kennedy made his reputation by hounding Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters is no evidence that the Kennedys opposed racketeering in any form. The Teamsters were, broadly speaking, a Republican-oriented union. Bobby showed little inclination to direct his crusading energies against the Reuther brothers and the strongly Democratic United Auto Workers, though the UAW had been guilty of corruption. In return, Reuther and the UAW provided political finance and mobilized precinct workers on the Kennedys’ behalf.
JFK himself clearly never did business with gangsters—he never did business with anybody—but his circle and theirs overlapped in the matter of female flesh. Bobby, as Attorney General, had to learn from the hated J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI that JFK was sharing a mistress, Judith Campbell, with the Chicago Mafia capo Sam Giancana. This was one reason, though not the only one, why Bobby could never prosecute Giancana, and why to some extent both he and his brother remained Hoover’s moral prisoners.
It is not, however, the failure to follow up these hints of dark connections and inhibitions that forms the chief omission in The Kennedys. It is, rather, the authors’ inability or unwillingness to explain why JFK was never exposed in his own lifetime or, indeed, for long after. How was the cover-up managed? It is true, of course, that journalists (as opposed to newspaper owners) are usually well-disposed to Democratic Presidents, especially those who have inherited their wealth (like FDR and JFK) as opposed to those Republicans who made their own way from nothing (like Hoover and Nixon). Humble reporters with radical leanings are, paradoxically, suckers for a touch of Whig condescension. They never revealed any of Roosevelt’s skullduggeries, which make the sins of a Nixon seem venial. JFK’s disreputable womanizing inside and outside the White House was carefully and systematically concealed by the same journalists who later expressed such moral outrage at the Watergate burglary and even at Nixon’s deleted expletives (JFK’s swearing was far less inhibited).
There was a good deal of political partisanship here, obviously. Was there also corruption? Old Joe was certainly capable of bribing journalists, just as he could and did buy the support of an entire newspaper. The Kennedys were also adept at recruiting, suborning, and, if necessary, bullying and terrifying intellectuals. From the moment the intelligentsia deserted Adlai Stevenson en masse and switched to Kennedy, the family had its tame eggheads who could be relied upon to beat the drum in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and later the New York Review of Books, as and when required. There were books, too. James MacGregor Burns was hassled by the clan into providing the ideal campaign biography of JFK; coming from a leading academic historian, it became a favored source for much other hagiographical material.
Academics and intellectuals, of course, are easily flattered into compliance by the great. Reinhold Niebuhr, seated next to Jacqueline Kennedy at dinner, was persuaded by her that she had read all his books, and in consequence became a fervent supporter of the Kennedy cause. Clerics, indeed, were often pushovers for the Kennedy charm or money. The American Catholic Church comes out of the Kennedy saga very badly. Cardinal O’Connell of Boston made a private attempt to persuade Gloria Swanson to end her adultery with Joseph, Sr., but never publicly criticized the patriarch’s outrageous behavior or his manifest contempt for Catholic moral teaching. O’Connell’s successor, Cardinal Cushing, was also a Kennedy chaplain, acting for instance as spiritual adviser to Jacqueline. These princes of the Church were as humble in the face of Kennedy might and money as ever were Wolsey or Cranmer before the imperious lusts of Henry VIII. The only prelate who gave the clan the brush-off was the much maligned Cardinal Spellman of New York, whose diocese was rich enough to be quite independent of its lucre. JFK was a bad Catholic, whose moral conduct, like his father’s, was a travesty of the Catholic image of family life, but the Church authorities were a party to the deception foisted upon the public, presenting him as a model husband and father and his Presidency as a triumph for American Catholicism.
Perhaps some day an authoritative book will be written on the means whereby the Kennedy mythology was created and, for so many years, sustained. Some of the journalists and writers who played in the Kennedy band must have known at the time that they were helping to con the American people. It may have been a desire to exorcise their guilt that led them to mount such a ferocious assault on Lyndon Johnson and, later, Richard Nixon. This oscillation from hagiology to character assassination reflects the fundamental instability and frivolity of the East Coast media, a prime factor in the failures of American policy in recent decades.
Collier and Horowitz have now told some of the truth about the Kennedy bid for power which at the time the Fourth Estate refused to reveal, or culpably neglected to discover. But it is not yet by any means the whole truth, and the field is wide open to more pertinacious and historically minded investigators.