Given that I am a politically active Irish Catholic Democrat, it should hardly surprise anyone that I recently finished reading David Nasaw’s new book The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy.
David Nasaw is an author, biographer and historian who specializes in the cultural and social history of early 20th century America. Nasaw is on the faculty of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he is the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Professor of History. He is best known for his biographies of William Randolph Hearst and Andrew Carnegie.
Senator Ted Kennedy approached Nasaw to write a biography of his father. Nasaw told the family that as an academic historian, he had no interest in writing an “authorized biography.” He told them he would undertake the project if he had guaranteed access to all documents at the Kennedy Library and elsewhere, and if he were free to write whatever he wanted, with no censorship or interference of any kind. The Kennedy family agreed to sit for interviews and to make Joseph Kennedy’s private papers available.
Since this isn’t the first Kennedy book I’ve read I can say there were no major revelations. If you are looking for insight into JFK, RFK or Teddy’s public or private lives, you will be disappointed. For me, the major take-away from the book was looking at JPK’s unpopular — and, for the most part, historically disproved — opinions on mostly international issues.
The insight provided is especially useful today. People of good conscience often have differing opinions on important issues, in large part because their personal experiences are so different.
Then-Ambassador Kennedy opposed U.S. involvement in what became known as World War II. Evidence provided by Nasaw suggests that it was not antisemitism, a love of fascism or hatred of England that motivated his apparent “appeasement” or “defeatism.” As the father or four boys he feared them being drafted into what he saw as a European matter. As a businessman, he also saw the economic devastation that the first World War brought and feared the economic repercussions of a second world conflict. It is important to remember that his professed world views were not dissimilar to a great many in the United States, England or even Germany. He did lose one son but was proven wrong about the economic devastation the war would bring to the United States.
Joseph P. Kennedy was an incredibly successful businessman, a devoted father and skilled and committed public servant in his roles as first chairman at the Security and Exchange Commission and Maritime Commission.
He was ill-suited for the role of international diplomat, both temperamentally and in terms of his life experience. His unwillingness to adapt his views to a changing world led to his diminishing relevance on the national stage.
If you are a student of the Kennedy family or World War II this is a must read. If you are a Kennedy hater or looking for a TMZ treatment of the man, you will be disappointed.