The Peculiar Life of Joseph Kennedy

October 24, 2012 Topics: DefenseHistoryGrand StrategyGreat Powers

The Peculiar Life of Joseph Kennedy

Mini Teaser: From his mercurial personality to his delusions of aptitude in the political realm to his catastrophic diplomatic appointment, a new book provides a thorough account of Kennedy’s life and all of its many highs and lows.

by Author(s): Conrad Black

Throughout his thirteen-year career as presidential candidate and president, Roosevelt needed only two things from Kennedy—to help persuade publisher and media owner William Randolph Hearst to abandon the spoiling candidacy of House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas at the 1932 Democratic convention; and to soothe the Irish Americans while FDR gave all aid “short of war” to Britain as he ran for a third term in 1940.

Roosevelt had succeeded Smith as governor of New York and supplanted him as the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency after Smith’s 1928 defeat. The Democrats required a two-thirds convention majority to nominate a presidential candidate, and Hearst, by promoting the Garner candidacy, denied Roosevelt that majority.

Hearst was a militant isolationist who generally preferred the Germans to the British. Because he suspected Roosevelt (with some reason) of being an internationalist, he fluffed up the Garner candidacy, although Garner himself had no interest in the nomination. Roosevelt inched toward the two-thirds majority he needed through the third ballot, but his famous campaign managers, Louis McHenry Howe and James A. Farley, had no more delegates to bring over.

Kennedy had struck up a cordial relationship with Hearst in his Hollywood days and succeeded in getting through his switchboard at San Simeon. He persuaded Hearst to release Garner from the spoiling campaign in exchange for Garner getting the vice presidential slot. Garner got the vice presidency, which he later described as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” Thus was Roosevelt nominated in a political climate that almost guaranteed his election, given the magnitude of the Depression.

KENNEDY’S PUBLIC career, though it had its moments, was a crushing disappointment, only ameliorated in his old age by the rise of his sons. On the first of Roosevelt’s railway campaign trips, Kennedy’s bonhomous talents as raconteur and his political largesse made him popular with some of Roosevelt’s entourage, while his insidious, swashbuckling self-promotion raised hackles with others. Roosevelt won by over seven million votes, and he didn’t need Kennedy to pad his majority.

Kennedy possessed administrative talents, as he had shown in the film industry and would demonstrate again soon. His gamecock aggressiveness and tendency to feel exploited or under-recognized served him well at trading, where he kept his eyes open and his guard up. But he lacked the self-confidence of a great leader. Roosevelt was an American aristocrat who spoke French and German, the cousin and nephew-in-law of a beloved president, connected to the Astors, Belmonts and Vanderbilts. As he said of the polio that afflicted him in his young adulthood, “If you spent two years in bed trying to wiggle your toe, after that anything would seem easy.”

Roosevelt’s intuition of the tides and currents of popular opinion were as demiurgic as, and much more complicated than, Kennedy’s shrewdness as an investor. He had the confidence of the well-born and much-loved only child, amplified by having overcome his terrible affliction and having achieved immense political popularity. He was an enigma. As one of his vice presidents, Henry Wallace, said: “No one knows him.” His sometime assistant secretary of treasury and of state, Dean Acheson, said Roosevelt ruled like a monarch—not a bourgeois British monarch but a Bourbon—by a combination of divine right, natural aptitude and popular will. “He called everyone by his first name and made no distinction between the secretary of state and the stable boy.” His successor, Harry Truman, said of FDR: “He was the coldest man I ever met. He didn’t give a damn personally for me or you or anyone else. . . . But he was a great President.”

Joe Kennedy was not equipped to deal with such a man—charming to everyone but revealing to no one. In the administration’s early days, Kennedy fumed to Roosevelt’s entourage about not being offered a job, then sent the president obsequious messages suggesting his inauguration “seemed like another resurrection,” as he put it in one letter. Roosevelt, on the other hand, read Kennedy exactly—a rich man who thought his commercial acumen could be transposed into other fields, convinced he could buy anything and anyone (starting with the president’s avaricious son James). It was the meeting of a guileless, hypersensitive, ethnic outsider and striver with an unfathomably enigmatic, overpowering national ruler and political magician. Kennedy never realized what and whom he was dealing with; Roosevelt knew precisely whom he was manipulating.

Finally, the call came in the summer of 1934. Roosevelt found himself less concerned about the feckless Republicans than about the rabble-rousing splinter groups led by Louisiana boss Huey P. Long, radio priest Charles E. Coughlin and the retirees’ pied piper, Francis Townsend. Thus, he created the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to round up the millions who were convinced that shady stock-market practices, false prospectuses and crooked trading had brought on the Depression. He viewed Kennedy as someone who knew all the financial tricks but was an unambiguous capitalist and no apologist of the pre-crash ancien régime. It was an astute appointment. As Roosevelt disarmingly explained to an incredulous reporter: “Set a thief to catch a thief.”

Nasaw exaggerates the crisis in financial markets at the time of Kennedy’s installation. Of the approximately seventeen million unemployed at the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration, about five million had been rehired by the private sector and seven million put to work in the New Deal workfare programs that built what would today be called infrastructure (Lincoln Tunnel, Triborough Bridge, Chicago waterfront, Tennessee Valley Authority) and conservation projects. The rest were at least receiving direct unemployment compensation, and the stock market had risen by more than 100 percent from its early 1933 low. Kennedy’s task wasn’t really, as Nasaw writes, to restore confidence in investors, though there was an aspect of that; it was to satisfy people that the markets functioned honestly and that the administration was not hostile to business.

It is a moot point whether the United States would have been better off without the monster the SEC has become, meddling and indicting in all directions and terrorizing the liver out of people throughout the economic system. But Kennedy staffed the commission with able people, ran it fairly and efficiently, and gave it a good launch. He retired in autumn 1935, and everyone agreed he had acquitted himself with distinction. He also entertained lavishly in Washington, previewing Hollywood movies after dinner. The president himself often enjoyed and reciprocated his hospitality.

In early 1937, Roosevelt gave Kennedy the chairmanship of the derelict Maritime Commission, saddled with protectionism, uncontrollable employment costs and a history of regulatory zeal. Kennedy studied the situation, then prepared an excellent report on what should be done to fix the U.S. merchant-shipping industry. Thus did he master another difficult assignment. Now he was ready for the real payoff, earned for his enthusiastic backing of the New Deal in a business community that generally felt threatened by it.

Roosevelt fully understood Kennedy’s mercurial personality and his delusions of aptitude for higher office. Some in his entourage blanched at the thought of rewarding Kennedy, but Roosevelt argued that sending him to London as ambassador would get him out of the way and dampen his unceasing maneuvering and backbiting. Besides, it would be a refreshing change of pace for the staid Court of St. James, which exasperated Roosevelt with its tendency to appease Hitler, as reflected in the diplomacy of prime ministers Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain.

But Roosevelt underestimated the extent to which Kennedy would tuck himself in with the Chamberlain coterie and become a witless dupe of the appeasers—and indirectly of Hitler. It was one of the most catastrophic appointments in U.S. diplomatic history (rivaled by his almost simultaneous nomination of the Stalin bootlicker Joseph E. Davies to Moscow). Roosevelt got more than he bargained for when he sent Joe Kennedy to London in March 1938.

THE PUGNACIOUS Irishman arrived just before the German Anschluss of Austria, and he fell in at once with the British government’s appeasement policy. Kennedy made himself the spokesman for the most absurd notions: German economic conditions required expansion; only an enlargement of American trade could avert war; Chamberlain’s desertion of Czechoslovakia was “a masterpiece.”

Kennedy told the incoming German ambassador, Herbert von Dirksen, as he had told his predecessor, Joachim von Ribbentrop, that he understood completely Germany’s concern with Jews and that Jewish influence in the media was responsible for Germany’s hostile press in America. According to Dirksen’s diplomatic cables, Kennedy said Hitler’s “ideas in the social and economic field which were responsible for such extraordinary achievements in Germany, would be a determining influence on the economic development of the United States.” Kennedy soon was sending cables to Washington predicting America would have to enact fascist economic controls; far from considering Roosevelt too economically interventionist, he was soon predicting American corporatism. He had no more economic moorings than he had any notion of geopolitical reality. He became preoccupied with the danger of war to the safety of his sons. He sent a weekly newsletter to various prominent Americans, including Walter Lippmann, William Randolph Hearst, columnist Drew Pearson, his paid mouthpiece Arthur Krock, and various isolationist journalists and senators in which he poured out his preemptive grovelings to Hitler. Nasaw records: “It was apparent now, six months into his tenure, that Joseph P. Kennedy was unfit to serve as ambassador.”

Pullquote: The Kennedys were really only a dynasty for the decade of the 1960s, a glamorous and tragic meteor of a family that fleetingly brightened the sky of America and then passed on.Image: Essay Types: Book Review