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The Patriarch

by David Nasaw, Penguin Press

Joseph P. Kennedy was larger than life, and The Patriarch is his epic biography. Renowned historian David Nasaw had unfettered access to Kennedy family materials; his 800-page opus fills in much previously left to rumor and hearsay and encompasses the fascinating contradictions of “a man of boundless talents, magnetic charm, relentless energy and unbridled ambition.”

Born in 1888 to a well-off Irish Catholic ward leader, educated at elite Boston Latin and Harvard, Kennedy was driven to excel at all he tried—sports, making money, bedding women, public service, tending his brood—and usually succeeded. But, Nasaw explains, his success came with an added twist: “He fought to open doors that were closed to him [as an Irish Catholic], then having forced his way inside, refused to play by the rules.” Before Kennedy was 40, he became a Wall Street multimillionaire. After the 1929 crash, as the first chairman of FDR’s new Securities and Exchange Commission, he fought to regulate the market, implacably closing loopholes he’d exploited.

Nasaw shows why this powerful, paradoxical man believed he was always right. Kennedy’s vision could be uncanny. He foresaw the stock market crash and made more money out of it. Then he invested heavily in the movie business when it was threatened by sound and censorship, and made even more. But sometimes he was breathtakingly wrong. As ambassador to the United Kingdom during World War II, he said publicly that the Nazis would triumph and that “democracy was finished in Britain.” He wanted to strike a deal with Hitler, and was furious that the Royal Air Force’s victory in the Battle of Britain prolonged “inevitable defeat.” His continuing isolationism led him to oppose the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Korean War and NATO.

For Kennedy, skirt chaser though he was, family trumped all. He doted on his children, whom he encouraged even when their convictions diverged from his. He let his eldest son Joe Jr., whom he was grooming to be president, leave Harvard to enlist as a U.S. Navy aviator; when word arrived that Joe’s plane had burned up during a mission, Kennedy’s youngest child Ted recalled, “Dad turned himself around, and stumbled back up the stairs; he did not want us to witness his own dissolution into sobs.”

Nasaw’s even-handed judgments stem from a nuanced understanding of Kennedy’s complicated character and tumultuous times. His numerous warts, like womanizing and anti-Semitism, are thoughtfully examined. But there are minor flaws. Most notably, Nasaw dismisses the longstanding charges of bootlegging, despite persuasive arguments in journalist Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot.

By 1969, when Kennedy died, he had realized his greatest ambitions— and, having outlived his three oldest sons, seen his greatest dreams shattered.


Originally published in the April 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.