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The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.

The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys

Doris Kearns Goodwin's recent book aboutthe Kennedys* illuminates the family legend with new fact and fresh insight, and it is a marvelous read. I would be astounded if it fails to win the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

* The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Doris Kearns Goodwin.Simon & Schuster, $22.95.

That being said, I have two problems--oneminor, the other major.

The minor one involves the minor inaccuracies.Having been seduced by the opening pages, I was a benign reader of the remainder of the book, definitely not looking for errors. So I can't help suspecting that the four I noticed are the tip of an iceberg.

"The most celebrated architect in Palm Beach'was not Harry but Addison Mizner. The Battle of Britain began not on September 7, 1940 but a month earlier. The Homestead is in Hot Springs, Virginia, not Arkansas. FDR's victory over Willkie in 1940 was not by "a narrow margin.' Roosevelt's popular vote exceeded Willkie's by five million. He led in electoral votes 449 to 82.

The book's major flaw is its failure to understandthe Kennedy hustle and its significance for the country, although to Goodwin's credit I must concede she lays out much of the evidence needed to arrive at this understanding.

The Kennedys have been America's royal familyin the second half of this century, even more than the Roosevelts had been in the first half. They have been emulated, either consciously or unconsciously, by millions of their countrymen. And their influence continues to this day.

The Kennedy hustle was the way they acquiredthat influence. It was a manipulative approach to the media and the public, based on exploitation of the financial and social insecurities of the rest of us.

Joseph Kennedy discovered what the presscould do when he was 28 and the Hearst papers ran a feature story that billed him as "the youngest bank president.' Suddenly he was known not just in Boston but all around the country. Kennedy learned the lesson of this experience well enough so that in 1923 he seized an opportunity to win the eternal gratitude of Walter Hovey, the editor of the Boston American, by salvaging Hovey's life savings from an investment that was threatened with disaster. For the rest of his days, Kennedy sought to manipulate the press, serving as puppeteer for, among others, Arthur Krock, a dominant figure at The New York Times for more than 30 years.

In 1952 Kennedy learned that John Fox, thepublisher of the Boston Post, was preparing to endorse Henry Cabot Lodge, who was running for the Senate against John F. Kennedy. Fox happened to be in deep financial trouble at the time. Joseph Kennedy immediately loaned him $500,000. The Post endorsed John F. Kennedy, who now knew the lesson himself and proceeded to apply it with skill and subtlety the rest of his life. His main targets were the publishers and editors of the large newspapers and of the most powerful magazines of the fifties and early sixties --Life, Look, Time, and Newsweek. He spent his last weekend with Benjamin C. Bradlee.

John Kennedy was attracted to Bradlee notonly because of Bradlee's role in the media--he was the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek --but because Bradlee's social credentials were edged in gilt. A central fact about the Kennedys is that they were both the exploiters and the victims of snobbery. They could con others by inviting them to Hyannis or Hickory Hill, but they were equally connable by an invitation from Lady Astor. This may explain why the British, themselves no slouches at this sort of hustle, may have selected the elegant David Ormsby-Gore (later Lord Harlech) to be their ambassador to the New Frontier. At any rate, Ormsby-Gore quickly established himself as John Kennedy's favorite diplomat and was a frequent White House guest.

Victims of the cruel prejudice of Boston'sWASPs, the Irish Catholic Kennedys had had to survive one obvious snub after another. It was bad enough to cause Joseph Kennedy to move his family from Boston to New York--and to fuel his desire to make it socially.

Kennedy became adept at climbing the ladder.He impressed Hollywood producers by getting them invited to lecture at Harvard Business School. He impressed Palm Beach society by arranging the appearance at a benefit ball of the reigning film queen, Gloria Swanson, who also happened to be his mistress. He impressed every Irishman in America by gaining social acceptance from the British elite while he was ambassador to the Court of St. James. The Irish, after all, had been spat upon by the Brits for centuries.

Most of all, he sought acceptance for hischildren. Goodwin observes, with a perceptiveness that shows what she might have accomplished had she pursued this theme more diligently:

"Having scrambled for his wealth, Kennedywanted his children to start life on the heights. Freeing them from material concerns, he hoped to instill in them that natural confidence possible only to people who never had cause to doubt their social position. With three mansions and a retinue of servants and cooks, he hoped to create in his children that aristocratic ease of manner that he had first observed among the Brahmin students at Harvard when he was a freshman.'

It almost worked, but not quite. The childrenstill felt a need to rise higher. Joe Jr. wrote: "I met the daughter of the Duke of Alba, and under Spanish law I would become the Duke if I married her, so I am toying with the idea. Wouldn't you like to have a Duke in the family?'

Joe Jr. may have been half-joking, but the factis that Kathleen did marry the Marquess of Hartington who, had he not been killed in World War II, would have become the Duke of Devonshire. "I'll have,' she wrote, "a castle in Ireland, one in Scotland, one in Yorkshire, and one in Sussex.'

As for John Kennedy's motivation in marryingJacqueline Bouvier, his closest friend, Lem Billings, said:

"I knew right away that Jackie was differentfrom all the other girls Jack had been dating. She was more intelligent, more literary, more substantial. And her mother's second marriage to Hugh Auchincloss carried the family into the social register, which gave Jackie a certain classiness that's hard to describe.'

The Kennedys understood upward mobility becausethey were upwardly mobile themselves. The famous campaign "teas' were consciously designed to appeal to the social aspirations of the women who attended. Similar aspirations were behind the public's use of the Kennedys as behavior models. By the early sixties, men stopped wearing hats because Jack didn't wear one and women were having their hair done like Jackie's and buying clothes that imitated her designer dresses. They found out what was the right thing to do by watching the first family. As Richard J. Whalen observed, "Everyone wanted to be in high society with the Kennedys.'

The family's influence began to decline afterJackie married Onassis and Teddy left Mary Jo Kopechne in that car at Chappaquidick. But by that time they had much of the country preoccupied with finding out "the right thing to do.' There had been an explosion of city magazines-- New York, Philadelphia, the Washingtonian. In the sixties, they were cropping up everywhere, full of articles and features designed to let the reader in on what was chic. At one of the more recent manifestations of this kind of journalism, Manhattan Inc., the staff now is torn by a controversy over whether red suspenders are in or out.

The Kennedys had been the spiritual leadersof a nation whose tastes were moving from "I Love Lucy' and "The Honeymooners' to "Dallas,' "Dynasty,' and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'--or, at a somewhat more refined, Jacqueline Bouvier level--to "Upstairs, Downstairs' and knowing the right paintings to hang on our walls.

The other day I saw a woman's resume. It listedthe schools her children were attending. Why? Because they were Harvard and Brown. We had Harry Truman when the fifties began. Now we have Nancy Reagan and Betsy Bloomingdale, not to mention Jerry Zipkin. The Kennedys hustled the entire nation. Upward mobility is now the only game in town.

What makes one weep is that there is anotherside to the Kennedy legacy, a side that could be our salvation.

The problem with the upwardly mobile todayis that, like the Reagans, they never stop to look down or to give a helping hand to those who are still groping for the first rung of the ladder. Even at their absolute worst, this was never true of John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy, nor of Sargent and Eunice Shriver. However much they may have lusted for association with celebrities, they have been consistent in their concern for the down and out.

We need that concern now. We also could useanother good quality of the Kennedys--their spirit of service. "Ask not' is the call we need to hear again, and it is a call we should answer with generous hearts, with a willingness to pay higher taxes, to surrender government benefits we don't need, and to give a few years of our lives to service in the armed forces or in organizations like the Peace Corps.

But instead of being inspired by the best sideof the Kennedys, we have imitated their worst and become, if not a nation of snobs, a country that is increasingly obsessed with money and status. We have forgotten why snobbery is so insidious. Instead of encouraging us to reach out to find common ground with our fellow man, it excludes people who don't fit the right mold. It is an expression of concern not for real substance but for how we look to the world. It makes us nervous about the things that don't count and thus detracts from the commitment to do the things that will make this world a better place, which is the commitment that should govern our lives.
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Author:Peters, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1987
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