Commentary Magazine

The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Letting the Chips Fall?

The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga.
by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Simon & Schuster. 932 pp. $22.95.

The author of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, an ambitious work of more than 900 pages spanning a hundred years of family history, from the baptism in Boston in 1863 of John Francis Fitzgerald, the infant son of an immigrant Irishman and his second-generation Irish-American wife, to the presidential inauguration in Washington in 1961 of John Fitzgerald’s forty-three-year-old grandson and namesake, simply cannot stop talking about the cooperation she has received from the current generation of leadership in the Kennedy family.

She is grateful, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in the preface to her book, “to Senator Edward M. Kennedy and the Kennedy family, who permitted me to examine the papers of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose F. Kennedy without ever asking to see a page of what I had written.” In recent publicity sessions with the press she has also been pleased to recall her surprise, indeed her amazement, at Senator Kennedy’s alacrity in granting her access to the 150 cartons of unprocessed and uncatalogued materials about his parents which suddenly turned up at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston in 1981, and at the willingness of all the Kennedy elders to allow her to make whatever use she wished of the old diaries, letters, tax returns, canceled checks, travel vouchers, and other memorabilia that the cartons proved to contain. How very sporting of the Kennedys to tell an author in effect to let the chips fall where they may! How oddly out of sync, one is forced to add, with the family’s traditional treatment of writers.

Apropos of John F. Kennedy’s presidential news conferences, the Chicago Daily News’s Washington bureau chief, Peter Lisagor, once observed on an oral-history tape that Kennedy successfully conned the reporters who covered him into serving as

spear carriers for a televised opera. We were props in a show, in a performance. Kennedy mastered the art of this performance early, and he used it with great effectiveness. . . . I always felt that we [reporters] should have joined Actors Equity. Those of us who asked questions should have charged that much extra for speaking lines.

Although the New York Times’s Arthur Krock had done unusual favors for years for Joseph P. Kennedy, he was finally so angered by the Kennedy administration’s ceaseless efforts to manage the news that in March 1963 he publicly characterized those efforts as a series of “direct and deliberate actions . . . enforced more cynically and more boldly than by any other previous administration.” A month later, Krock’s fellow Times-man, Hanson Baldwin, lodged a similar complaint, citing the administration’s “astonishing examples of news repression and distortion, management and control, pressures and propaganda.”

For decades before his son became President, Joseph P. Kennedy had been equally given to treating writers with contempt, to seducing them if possible, to threatening them if necessary, and always for the purpose of inflating his family’s achievements and keeping its secrets dark. So that Jack’s awkwardly composed senior thesis at Harvard, “Appeasement at Munich: The Inevitable Result of the Slowness of the British Democracy to Change from a Disarmament Policy,” could be merchandised as a book called Why England Slept (1940), Ambassador Kennedy ordered the young speech writer he had brought with him to London, Harvey Klemmer, to take a look at the manuscript that Jack was still struggling to expand and improve. In the 1980’s, Klemmer would recall that

I worked two weeks on it, night and day, delivered it at four o’clock in the morning on the day that Eddie Moore [the Ambassador’s right-hand man] was to go to New York and take it to the publisher. When I got it, it was a mishmash, ungrammatical. He had sentences without subjects and verbs. It was a very sloppy job, mostly magazine and newspaper clippings stuck together. I edited it, and put in a little peroration at the end.

As a final touch, Joe Kennedy persuaded the Time empire’s Henry Luce to write a foreword to the book—which eventually sold 40,000 copies and made its young author a celebrity.

Old Joe also knew how to suppress unwanted publicity. When he was shown an advance copy of a long and unfavorable story about him by an ambitious young writer named Earle Looker that was scheduled to appear in Fortune in September 1937, Kennedy brutally denounced it to the managing editor of the magazine, Russell Davenport, as “the brainchild of a psychopathic case,” at which point the intimidated Davenport told him he would kill the piece, despite the considerable trouble and expense that the decision entailed.

Getting the story put about that his mentally defective daughter Rosemary—whom he ultimately had lobotomized without consulting his wife—was just a shy young woman with an interest in working in secluded circumstances with retarded children was another of the senior Kennedy’s public-relations triumphs. So too was the disinformation campaign he masterminded in support of the idea that the curiously sickly Jack was subject to recurrent attacks of the malaria he had contracted during the war in the Pacific, whereas actually he was engaged in desperate battles with Addison’s disease.

Joe’s views about publicity were eagerly adopted by younger family members. In the aftermath of John Kennedy’s assassination, the martyred President’s old friend “Red” Fay completed an anecdotal book about him to which he gave the genial title, The Pleasure of His Company. Thanks to the lengthy interview they arranged with Fay, Peter Collier and David Horowitz would be able to reveal in The Kennedys: An American Drama (1984) that the poor fellow was immediately subjected to reprimand by Jacqueline Kennedy, to whom he had courteously showed the manuscript, for his “locker-room humor,” while Robert Kennedy coldly insisted he cut the memoir by two-thirds, on the grounds that what he had written about Jack was personally disrespectful and therefore diminished him as President. Although Fay duly eliminated 90,000 words, Bobby was far from satisfied and threatened to go to court to block the publication of the book. Only by standing his ground did Fay discover that the bully was bluffing.

Bobby did file suit, however, against William Manchester, to restrain him from publishing advance excerpts in Look magazine of The Death of a President (1967), after Jackie found the manuscript disturbingly full of “private things,” even though she herself had chosen Manchester to tell the story. In a swarming action, Manchester was hounded from several directions at once by Richard Goodwin (now the husband of Doris Kearns) and three other guardians of the Kennedy myth, John Siegenthaler, Burke Marshall, and Ed Guthman, all of whom called upon the beleaguered author either to agree to make hundreds of textual changes or to abandon the book altogether. At one point, Bobby personally applied the Kennedy muscle by appearing outside the hotel room to which Manchester had retreated and pounding on the door and yelling threats. In the end, Manchester consented to a few changes and the suit was dropped.

As for Collier and Horowitz, they discovered early on in their investigations into the history of the Kennedy dynasty that another historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, had embarked on similar research. Collier and Horowitz did not, however, regard her work as a threat to theirs—until, that is, it became apparent to them that the Kennedy family’s open-door policy toward Mrs. Goodwin would most definitely not be extended to them.

In the preface to The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, Mrs. Goodwin had an obligation to her readers to spell out her political relationship with the Kennedys. The standards of literary propriety evidently mean very little to her, however, as she demonstrated in different terms eleven years ago when she promoted her first book, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, by speaking of her friendship with Johnson in ways that encouraged sensational rumors about it. Although Mrs. Goodwin is at pains in her preface to present a touching picture of herself in the Concord, Massachusetts, Public Library, where, day after day and year after year, “I sat . . . writing this book in longhand, in the warmth and beauty of the wood-paneled reading room,” she says not a word about leaving the library from time to time during 1980 in order to work as a speech-writer for and adviser to Teddy Kennedy as he set out to unhorse Jimmy Carter as the presidential nominee of the Democratic party.

Her prefatory remarks about her husband, to whom the book is dedicated, are likewise blemished by disingenuous reticence. “I reserve my deepest thanks for my husband, Richard Goodwin, who conceived the idea for this book a decade ago, and who helped me through every single day of labor.” That Richard Goodwin first went to work for John Kennedy in the late 1950’s and remained with him until he died, that he deserted Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign in 1968 upon hearing that Bobby Kennedy had announced his own candidacy, that he raced to Teddy Kennedy’s side in the tumultuous aftermath of Mary Jo Kopechne’s precipitation into the drowning pool, are among the choice details about his career that Mrs. Goodwin never mentions.



Let the chips fall where they may. In The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, that never happens. By one device or another, the fall of the chips is invariably gentled and smoothed. Thus, in a passage that has already become familiar through quotation by other reviewers, we are told that the “truth” about Joe

is that he united in his person both inexorable self-will and the capacity for deep attachment, both appalling ruthlessness and unswerving fidelity; the images jostle one another, yet are part of the same complicated character. Deficient in civility, he could be the most disagreeable man in the world; unbounded by convention, his crudeness would betray others again and again. However, when the gates of his passions were opened for those he loved, the love he received in return was past the size of dreaming. Let the world classify him a blackguard, so long as his family and his friends ranked him a king.

Stylistically, this passage has a very high polish. Its diction is grand, its tone lofty, its rhythms powerful. Argumentatively, it is as slick as oil. While huge faults in Joe are readily acknowledged—and how could they be avoided?—a case for the defense is adroitly pleaded at every turn.

Another artful paragraph on a sensitive subject begins:

While we may never know the true nature of Joe Kennedy’s feelings toward the Jews, one thing is clear. In the late 30’s, his passion for peace . . . was so overriding that he was willing to sacrifice almost anything to achieve it.

If that statement seems reasonable within the context of the book, it is because the book contains none of the evidence which conclusively defines Joe’s feelings about Jews, such as his declaration to Harvey Klemmer at lunch at Claridge’s in 1940, on the eve of his final departure from England as the American Ambassador, that he was going home to tell the American people that “Roosevelt and the kikes were taking us into war.”



In the presentation of Rose Kennedy, we get a different example of how Mrs. Goodwin smooths the fall of the chips. Here is a passage describing the decision Rose reached in the winter of 1920 to go back to Joe after leaving him and after her father told her sternly that she had exchanged solemn vows with her husband and that she must honor them:

Galvanized by the authority in her father’s voice, Rose began thinking more sharply than she had done for weeks. Of course she could make things work. She always had managed and she always would. It was just a matter of accepting her own needs and then reorganizing the household so that she could create definite goals for herself and have a clear vision of what she hoped to accomplish with her family. It was a question of accepting that her own desire to grow and learn deserved expression, just as surely as that of her children. There must be a way, she determined, of doing with the children what she herself enjoyed, of sharing with them her love of history and travel, of politics and ritual; there must be a way to encourage the children into activities which would allow her to grow as well.

Although Mrs. Goodwin would have us believe that she is faithfully reproducing Rose’s thought processes, she has actually taken off into a flight of anachronistic fancy. Far from making Rose sound like a woman of the 1920’s, she has transformed her into a post-feminist heroine of the 1980’s, whose philosophy of life is bounded on the one hand by her commitment to her family and on the other by an insistence on “having her own space,” as Mrs. Goodwin has the lack of literary taste to remark a few pages later. Shifting to hilariously stupid historical clichés, the author goes on to say that it was Rose’s fate to live “in the shadow of the disintegrating 20’s—the dizzying decade of flappers and bootleggers, of sensuous music, scandals, and fads,” when “the modern American family was seen to be in a state of collapse.” Unfazed, however, by the historical odds against her, Rose pitted her strength and determination against “the pressures of moral and social drift” by making a “profession” out of raising her children, while at the same time “keeping intact a mysterious region of her soul into which she did not consider it necessary to admit them.”

The inanity of Mrs. Goodwin’s celebration of Rose for resisting the “disintegrating” trends of her time is not merely restricted to its simplistic formulations about American life in the 1920’s. Just as Mrs. Goodwin drastically underestimates the persistence of traditional family values among most American women of the period, so she does not adequately reckon with the self-centeredness that made Rose such a “modern” mother, after all. Pseudo-poetic reference to a “mysterious region” of Rose’s “soul” to which her children were denied admission hardly begins to describe—and offers no way of explaining—the poisonous incapacity to give her children the love they needed that would some day cause her son Jack to say, “My mother is a nothing,” and that would prompt her daughter Kathleen to confess to a boyfriend, “Listen, the thing you ought to know is that I’m like Jack, incapable of deep affection.” (While both of these quotes appear in the Collier and Horowitz book, it is significant that neither of them is cited in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, although the book does offer some paler examples of the same pathological results.)

A benevolent censorship has likewise been applied to old Joe’s womanizing, and to Jack’s as well. While we hear at length about Joe’s glamorous affair with Gloria Swanson, all the disgusting stuff, such as his attempt to sleep with the Danish-born blonde, Inga Arvad, with whom Jack was sleeping, has been thoughtfully edited out. Similarly in Jack’s case, abstract reference is made to the pace of his sex life, but it is under-dramatized. For knowledge of the collegiate letters to his friend LeMoyne Billings which spell out so lamentably his everlasting compulsion to talk about fornication, one has to turn, once again, to Collier and Horowitz. “Whether or not he [an old schoolmate] screwed her,” runs a representative missive, “she got quite a scare when I gave it to her. . . . However I couldn’t feel any maidenhead and she is quite sexy.”

If one wants to know the reason (it was a spectacular-looking blonde) why Jack was cruising on a yacht in the Mediterranean when Jackie was giving birth to a stillborn baby in a Newport, Rhode Island hospital, one will not learn it from the section of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys that begins, “The trip was poorly timed.” And the treaty that Joe Kennedy brokered with Jackie in order to dissuade her from leaving Jack and spoiling his chances for the Presidency is also overlooked in this cleverly selective book which John Kenneth Galbraith has had the nerve to hail as “the definitive work; no one need ever do it again.”



Dropping embarrassing facts down the memory hole is one way to get rid of them; another is to bring up, in as minimal a fashion as possible, various “questions” that have been raised over the years about the Kennedys and then move on without passing judgment upon their justness. Thus, toward the end of the account of the writing, the publication by Harper and Brothers, and the smashing success of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage (1956), an ugly contretemps that the Kennedys never anticipated is alluded to with exquisite brevity:

In the years to come, questions would arise about the extent of Jack’s authorship of the book, given the substantial help and guidance he received from staff members and historians who prepared the material on which the book was based and who wrote drafts for most of the chapters.

In this account, the names of Kennedy’s literary alter ago, Theodore Sorensen, and of his historical brain-truster, Professor Jules Davids of Georgetown University, are not so much as breathed. No reference is made to the furor created by the suggestion John Oakes of the New York Times put to Harper editor Simon Michael Bessie at the Century Club in New York that according to “strong rumor” Kennedy had not really written the book. And the devastating demonstration from textual evidence in Herbert S. Parmet’s Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980) that Kennedy was the overseer of the book but not its author, is likewise ignored, as is Parmet’s further conclusion that

At the working level, research, tentative drafts, and organizational planning were left to committee labor, with such talents as Professor Davids making key contributions. But the burdens of time and literary craftsmanship were clearly Sorensen’s, and he gave the book both the drama and the flow that made for readability.

In an interview with Cathryn Donohoe of the Washington Times, Mrs. Goodwin was asked about the absence of Sorensen’s name from her narrative. She began her answer by speaking of her personal acceptance of the fact that “when you look at the materials in the raw [of Profiles in Courage], that Sorensen had done a majority of the work.” But at this late point in the story, she went on to explain, her research was past the point of originality, and she had to rely on secondary sources:

I mean, as I say, I thought I was being critical. I didn’t intend not to, ’cause I came away feeling that way. I just didn’t have anything original to contribute to the argument.

Let the chips fall where they may, indeed.



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