A hefty, well-documented, glowing account of the Kennedys as prime examples of the Irish-Catholic experience in America.
For this five-generation history of the clan from the mid-19th century to the present day, Newsday journalist and biographer Maier (Newhouse, 1996, etc.) makes extensive use of patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy’s personal papers; interviews and correspondence with family and friends in both the US and Ireland round out the picture. Much of the saga is already familiar, but Maier takes particular interest in the Kennedys’ religious and ethnic background, how it influenced their thinking and their actions. He paints a vivid picture of the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment that faced immigrants with brogues, and he shows how the first American-born Kennedy, P.J., used his position as a tavern owner to become ward boss in his Irish immigrant community. The account becomes increasingly detailed as it shifts to P.J.’s son Joseph. Rather than focusing on how the patriarch became wealthy, Maier looks at how he used his wealth and power behind the scenes in the Catholic Church. Among Joseph’s children, the author is most interested in Jack’s use of his Irish-Catholic background early in his political career and his struggles against anti-Catholic bias in the 1960 presidential campaign. Maier also examines how JFK’s presidency affected perceptions of the Church by outsiders, and especially how his background shaped his positions on civil rights, immigration, and the war on communism. Later he looks at Robert’s appeal to other ethnic minorities, including Latinos and blacks, and to the efforts of Ted and Jean to bring peace to Northern Ireland. In the next generation, Maier finds that it is often the women (e.g., Caroline Kennedy and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend) who have assumed the role of “Irish chieftain,” those traditional clan leaders of old who inspired and led their people.
Largely airbrushed family portrait, with warts shown mainly on the face of a prejudiced society. (Two 16-page b&w photo inserts, not seen)