Addiction in Society

Addiction—the thematic malady for our society—entails every type of psychological and societal problem

Joe Kennedy: First Father

Was Joe Kennedy the best father of all time?

Some readers didn't think much of Joseph P. Kennedy as a family man following my description of his excellent affair with Clare Boothe Luce, despite his generally happy and good marriage to Rose.  He and his wife never quarreled, were supportive of one another, and seemed to enjoy their time together -- including overseas trips.  They just didn't spend much of their time together.  Here is one reaction from an ardent (if anonymous) Catholic:

How can you use the term "family man" in the context of being absent and choosing to spend time in Palm Beach with his cronies? How can he have 'paid detailed attention to the needs of his children', when he wasn't present? No he was NOT an ardent Catholic -- if he had been, he would have understood infidelity. One can be a Catholic in name only, but not in practice. The Kennedy family has done more to disgrace Catholics in America and dilute the teachings of the Church than any other public figure in history.

Joe didn't generally choose to live with his family.  He first spent a lot of time in Hollywood with his film business, then in New York with his financial business, then just gadding about with the boys (and girls -- who were there for entertainment purposes).  Yes, after his active business career, Joe spent most of his time in Palm Beach with his golfing buddies.  He did often join the family in Hyannis Port over the summer -- but, after the grandkids started coming, THAT was too much for Kennedy, and he spent most of the holidays and the summer in a villa in the south of France.

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Here's just a hint of Joe's idea of intimate family life.  After moving the family from Brookline, MA to New York, since he worked there, "Kennedy's daily life was not appreciably impacted by his family's move to Riverdale.  He saw little of them that fall, worked late hours, and spent many nights at the Harvard Cub or a hotel."

And, so, Anonymous finds Joe grossly deficient as a parent as well as a husband.

But Joe Kennedy might have been the greatest father of all time.

Joe and Rose had nine children.  And Joe was close to all of them; all of them respected -- revered -- their father; all did everything they could to please him; yet all of them were individuals who had great independent accomplishments.

Joe and Rose's oldest child, Joe. Jr. -- for whom Joe held his highest hopes -- died young during the war flying a suicide mission.  Oldest daughter Rosemary had developmental problems.  Joe was very close with Rosemary -- he devoted perhaps the most time to her special needs of any of his children. However, in a very bad move, Kennedy -- on medical advice -- had Rosemary lobotomized, after which she became severely disabled and was warehoused by the family.  And then the second oldest daughter, Kick (Kathleen) also died in a plane crash.

Jack was the second child, and a problem child at that.  Jack was sick throughout his life -- he had undiagnosed Addison's Disease -- and was frequently hospitalized.  Whenever he was, Joe rushed to Jack's bedside, and he worried constantly about Jack's health.  Jack may have been the most deficient Kennedy (aside from Rosemary) as a student, and was frequently in academic trouble.  Finally, there were Jack's alley cat ways.  But a more serious problem Kennedy had to deal with was not his son's promiscuous dating, but rather Inga Arvad, a Danish national, four years older than Jack, who had graduated Columbia Journalism School.  Jack was serious about her.  But Kennedy couldn't permit this relationship -- for any number of reasons -- and he had to end it.

Of the six of his children who survived and functioned into maturity, all three boys became United States Senators: Jack, Robert (Bobby), and Edward (Ted).  Jack, obviously, also became President -- the first Catholic to hold this office, at a time when Catholicism invited prejudice like that faced by Barack Obama.  Robert -- who was assassinated while seeking the 1968 Democratic nomination -- might easily have become President as well.  No man has ever sired two American presidents (although Jeb Bush -- George W.'s brother -- may seek the Republican nomination in 2016).

Of Joe's three remaining daughters, Eunice Kennedy married Sargent Shriver.  Eunice became an advocate for children with retardation, starting and funding a number of institutions that serviced this group, including most notably the Special Olympics.  Husband Sargent was the founding director of the Peace Corps under Jack, ran for Vice President himself, and became ambassador to France.  Patricia and Jean were likewise prominent for their public service, married prominent men, and remained devoted to their father -- as did Eunice.

Kennedy, obviously, emphasized public service for his children -- since he often said he had made enough money for all of them.  He helped them to shape their careers -- usually by following the interests they found on their own.  Perhaps the two greatest exceptions to this were Joe insisting that Jack appoint Bobby as his attorney general -- even after Bobby initially refused the job.  Likewise, before Ted was 30 and eligible to be a United States Senator, Joe decided on that role for his youngest son and helped position him to take that office.  Ted Kennedy went on to become arguably the most influential senator in American history.

But Joe also let all of his children have their own heads. While encouraging them, he gave them tremendous freedom, and always supported their endeavors.  This continued as the children became adults.  When a still quite young Bobby decided to go after Teamster Union president Dave Beck under the Kefauver Senate Subcommittee, Joe objected forcefully -- since it would alienate the labor vote -- and had Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas try to argue Bobby out of it.  Bobby went ahead anyhow.

Joe frequently took active positions towards his sons' political moves.  but Joe and his sons never became alienated -- they hardly ever seemed to be angry at one another.  After Joe made his position known -- well known -- even if his children disregarded him, he backed them one hundred percent.  For instance, Joe argued strenuously against Jack entering the West Virginia primary, since he expected his Catholicism to go down poorly in that largely Protestant state.  Jack listened carefully, then responded: "Well, we've heard from the ambassador (Joe had been Ambassador to Great Britain), and we're all very grateful, Dad, but I've got to run in West Virginia."  He won the state's primary big.

During the period when Jack sought the Democratic nomination, Joe kept in the background, speaking only to an occasional reporter.  Meanwhile, Lyndon Johnson entered the battle for the nomination late, then challenged Jack to a debate.

"This is Jack's fight, and this is his effort. He doesn't need me making wise cracks. . . .I don't want my enemies (of whom Joe had many) to be my son's enemies or my wars to be my son's wars.  I lived my life, fought my fights, and I'm not apologizing for them. . . .It's now time for a younger generation. . . .I don't want to hang on. . . .They'll make it on their own."  While they (Joe and a reporter) talked, the radio was playing in the background.  When it was announced that Johnson had invited Jack to debate before the Texas delegation (Johnson's home turf), Kennedy insisted that if he "were Jack, I wouldn't get within a hundred yards of him.  We've got this won. . .and he's desperate. . . .Hell, I wouldn't touch him."  Then, a bit later, came the report that Jack had accepted Johnson's challenge, and without a moment's hesitation Kennedy declared that Jack would easily win the debate. (He did)

After Jack became president, "Kennedy took a commercial flight to Washington and. . ..made it clear to his friends in the press and to Jack's staff that 'he didn't want any calls from anybody.' Instead, he spent the next 'three days in the Senator's (Jack's) office. . .doing the same kind of work I did when I was fifteen years old -- sorting out letters and answering telephones.'"  Joe in fact organized the pre-inauguration gala for his son, with his business, film, political and media friends and connections.  Jack took an aide aside and told him, "Have you ever seen so many attractive people in one room?  I'll tell you, Dad knows how to give a party."

At the inauguration itself,

As the lead-off car with the President approached the reviewing stand, Joseph P. Kennedy stood up and took off his hat in a gesture of deference to his son. "It was an extraordinary moment," Eunice would later remark.  "Father had never stood up for any of us before.  He was always proud of us, but he was always the authority we stood up for.  Then, as Jack passed by and saw Dad on his feet, Jack too stood up and tipped his hat to Dad, the only person he honored that day."

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Quoted sections from David Nasaw's "The Patriarch"

Stanton Peele, PhD, JD, is the author of Recover! He has been a pioneer in the addiction field since publication of Love and Addiction in 1975.

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