'The Patriarch': The Complicated Legacy of Joseph P. Kennedy

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Joseph P. Kennedy, the powerful patriarch of the Kennedy dynasty, died in 1969, but his legacy has continued to fascinate, and puzzle, historians as well as his own descendants. David Nasaw paints a nuanced and complex portrait of the businessman, investor, and ambassador in his new book, "The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy."

Nasaw exposes Kennedy the businessman, the father and the government official, challenging many of the misconceptions that surround the elder Kennedy who made an impact on Wall Street, Hollywood, and Washington.

"The story of Joseph P. Kennedy is the story of an outsider who becomes an insider, won't play by the rules, becomes an outsider, makes his way back in," Nasaw says. "It's twists and turns, rises and falls, and rises again."  

Upon graduating from college, Kennedy's sole ambition was to go into finance. "He wanted his children - and his said this very early, and often - to go into public service, but in order to do that, they had to have the money," Nasaw says. "It would give them the backing, the security, the income they needed so that they would not have to work, and they could go into public service in a way that he might have liked to do, but was unable to do."

Kennedy began trading stocks while still at Harvard, and made a fortune using all the tricks that were legal at the time. But his upward trajectory was not at all consistent. He gravely misjudged the situation with Hitler, and opposed the war almost until the last moment. "Kennedy was a businessman, and as a businessman, he believed you can sit across the table with anyone and negotiate a deal," Nasaw says. 

"I knew what was coming, and yet, I had to live his life as he lived it," Nasaw says of reliving Kennedy's personal tragedies. "When Kennedy died, five of his nine children had died before him. And for a man who took pride, took love, took comfort in his children, lived for his children, that was the greatest tragedy of all."  


David Nasaw

Produced by:

Arwa Gunja, Ali Rahman and Jillian Weinberger

Comments [7]

Tom Keever from Manhattan

I look forward to having a look at this new biography of Joseph P. Kennedy.

I wonder if the book will manage to so sanitize his history, as John's fawning interview did, that we will learn nothing about his warning Hollywood not to make films critical of Hitler, his energeitic serial adulteries, and his long association with the Chicago mob.

Nov. 14 2012 03:51 PM
Christine from Westchester

Yes, a sad story in some ways but a life of many triumphs. I like Charles note that this is very pro-Kennedy. I guess it's okay to be a rich Democrat. Other rich guys (those filthy 1%) wouldn't get the same review.

Nov. 14 2012 03:48 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

What a heartbreaking story

Nov. 14 2012 02:16 PM

Actually, Jay, the first of your two links proves my point rather neatly. And in reviewing that link, I see that I commented on it at the time.

What we saw, at the time of the release of George W. Bush's book "Decision Point," was that The Takeaway didn't offer anything like the "reverential" treatment I observed today with the layered soundscape of Kennedy voices from the past, etc., etc., etc.

In the case of the Bush book, The Takeaway brought in professional Bush critic Russ Baker, himself an author of an oppo-Bush book (very much unlike the essentially authorized biographer David Nasaw in this case) to denounce the book as mor appropriately titled "Talking Points" and "a carefully constructed attempt to re-position not just himself but this entire apparatus..." And, "there's not a single statement in here that isn't self-serving."

The entire Bush story by The Takeaway in that instance is an attack -- and a rather vicious one -- on the Bush family. A radio version of a thumbs-down review, or worse.

And so thanks very much, Jay, for helping to illuminate my original point. To all listeners; please do listen to this segment, and then compare the segment with Russ Baker and Celeste Headlee on the release of "Decision Points" for a tutorial on The Takeaway's disparate treatment of two books.

Nov. 14 2012 11:42 AM
Jay Cowit, Takeaway Technical Director from WNYC HQ

"But can anyone imagine for a moment public radio devoting this kind of reverential treatment, for a familial history of the Bush family?"

Charles, we've done it at least twice. So you don't have to imagine anything. Just listen.


Nov. 14 2012 11:05 AM

Sounds like an exceeding sympathetic biography of this historical figure with every excuse and benefit of the doubt at the ready.

Nov. 14 2012 10:30 AM

I feel certain that the book must be fascinating. I expect it will be an enjoyable read.

But can anyone imagine for a moment public radio devoting this kind of reverential treatment, for a familial history of the Bush family, from George Herbert Walker (founder of the Walker Cup), to Sen. Prescott Bush, to President George H.W. Bush, to President George W. Bush and Governor (and possible President) Jeb Bush, and now George P. Bush?

There's much more public service, and probably much less scandal, with the Bush family, so that might make their story less titillating.

In the case of the Kennedys (and not simply old Joe Kennedy), is this about myth-penetration, or myth preservation?

Nov. 14 2012 10:18 AM

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