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.
Review From Publishers Weekly
Journalist Leamer (The Kennedy Women) provides a stirring narrative of the Kennedy men but comes up short as regards analysis of the byzantine motivations, complex psychology and persistent moral failures that lie behind the events he otherwise describes so well. Putting his own spin on well-known anecdotes (including all the most popular tales from so many other books that document Joe Sr.’s rise in business and politics, his failure to recognize the menace of Hitler and his sponsorship of his children’s careers). Leamer steadfastly refuses to shed a critical light on the proclivities of Kennedy père. The author soft-pedals, for example, the Kennedy partriarch’s well-documented anti-Semitism. The same lack of critical analysis despite Leamer’s access to never-before available materials constitutes a considerable flaw throughout the book. Although offering engaging and fast-moving accounts of such events as Joe Jr.’s death and Jack’s rise in politics through means both fair and foul, Leamer consistently refrains from considering the ethical implications of his stories, or the evident shortcomings in the character of more than one Kennedy. He seems, for example, to step back in awe when considering the brilliance and audacity of the Kennedys’ stealing Cook County and therefore the election during the 1960 presidential race. In the final analysis, Leamer is a fan, idealizing his subjects. The result is a good read, though not necessarily a balanced history. Leamer’s book is the first of a projected two-volume set.
Review From Library Journal
While this is a work of political and family history, as any Kennedy book must be, it is best described as an extended character study of Joseph Kennedy and his sons, Joseph Jr., John, Robert, and Edward. It is not a celebration of triumphs or an undraping of frailties but instead offers much of both in an evenhanded narrative of courage, meanness, ambition, hypocrisy, patriotism, anti-Semitism, duty, and wantonness. Few tales can be more familiar, yet the writing is always tight and often graceful. How the men of this family lived their lives both publicly and privately is the real subject of this book, even as the cinema of Leamer’s plot projects scenes featuring the likes of Roosevelt, King, Monroe, Castro, and Nixon. Although Leamer aims primarily at a general audience, scholars will take note of his considerable primary research, in printed and recorded material, and dozens of his own interviews. Worthy of being placed on the same shelf with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, this book follows Leamer’s The Kennedy Women and precedes a planned second volume. For all libraries. – Robert F. Nardini, Chichester, NH