First of a projected two volumes, pulling together in sometimes mind-numbing detail the lives of the men in a family that dominated the American imagination during the last half of the 20th century.
Leamer (The Kennedy Women, 1994, etc.) offers a relatively evenhanded although ultimately admiring examination of the relationships among Joseph Kennedy and his four sons: Joe Jr. (WWII hero, killed in action), Jack (president, assassinated), Bobby (attorney general and senator from New York, assassinated) and Teddy (baby of the family and longtime senator from Massachusetts, plagued by scandal). All the old questions are here, but so are the old answers, albeit amplified with new documents and interviews. Did Joe Sr. make money from bootlegging liquor? Probably. Did he buy his son Jack the presidency? Not really, although he certainly spent a lot of money and called in many favors. Was Jack the swordsman that he was reputed to be? Even more so. Not exactly breaking news, but by bundling the lives of the Kennedy men together and emphasizing family influences, Leamer is able to clarify some of the seeming contradictions in their personal and political acts. For instance, Joe Sr. single-mindedly groomed his sons for public lives, but he was also a loving and supportive father. President Kennedy admired nothing more than physical and moral courage, but often waffled on taking a stand if the political stakes were high. Attorney General Kennedy’s sometimes vicious handling of colleagues on behalf of his brother contrasted with his real concern for the suffering of other human beings. In the survey of JFK’s presidency, the Cuba crises and the so-called mob connections receive a considerable share of attention, the civil-rights movement perhaps not as much as it deserves. This hefty tome ends with JFK’s funeral, with much of Bob and Ted’s stories still to come.
Historians will wince at some of the hyperbole and speculative conclusions, but Kennedy junkies will gobble it up.