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The most tragic Irish American Joseph Patrick Kennedy - for better or worse a product of the immigrant experience

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Joseph Patrick Kennedy
Joseph Patrick Kennedy

It is understandable why many people believe John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the most important Irish American.  He was the first Catholic president, a trailblazer who visited his family’s ancestral home in Ireland just months before he was fatally shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

But there would have been no JFK without JPK - his father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy of East Boston.
Esteemed historian David Nasaw has just released a 900-page biography of the old man entitled The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy.

Yet another Kennedy book, you say?  More hazy malarkey about Camelot?

Or another rehashing of the extramarital affairs or the assassinations, proof of the existence of some “Kennedy curse”?

Such a reaction is understandable.  And yet the heft of this book is without question justified. 

Joseph Kennedy is not only the most important Irish American.  He is arguably the most important figure in American ethnic history, a symbol of the profound success which can be achieved through ambition and hard work, as well as the tragedy and damage which result from the blind drive to become “an insider.”

Not Eugene O’Neill, not Shakespeare, could have written a life story as complex and tragic as Joseph P. Kennedy’s.  Perhaps the Greeks came closest, particularly in the tale of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and fell to his death. 

Along the same lines, consider that no fewer than three members of the Kennedy clan - Joseph Jr., his sister Kathleen (known as “Kick”) and JFK Jr. -- fell from the sky, dying in airplanes.

Joseph Kennedy belonged to the first generation of Kennedys born in America who did not live in poverty.  Joe Kennedy’s father, P.J., lost a brother as well his own father, to cholera. 

P.J. left school at 14 to work and help support the family, and he managed to gain a foothold in Boston, running saloons and making friends in political circles.

P.J. was able to send his son, Joe, to Boston Latin School and then Harvard, and there is your first hallmark of immigrant life -- the strive to move up the economic ladder.

But Joe Kennedy’s ladder never seemed to end.  He climbed and climbed - in part because he was maniacally ambitious, in part because American society viewed him and his kind with contempt.

Indeed, while it’s hard to view a Harvard graduate millionaire who was a close advisor to presidents as any kind of victim, the fact is that Joseph P. Kennedy endured subtle, imagined and blatant bigotry throughout his entire career.  Here is another hallmark of the immigrant experience -- disdain from the powers that be.

And this leads us to the most difficult part of all, when that ambition mixes with resentment and produces an emotional volatility that manifests itself in some of the most deplorable behavior in the
American psyche -- paranoia, rage, anti-Semitism. 

The dark side of the American ethnic experience, rarely discussed because it runs counter to our belief that we are a benevolent beacon of hope for immigrants, is that nativist hostility and the drive to succeed take a massive toll on first and second generation Americans. 

Crime, alcoholism, family dysfunction.  These and more scarred Irish American and other ethnic families from New York to San Francisco. 

Kennedy dabbled in all of these - mingling with gangsters, possibly bootlegging, cheating on his wife relentlessly, believing Jews to be the cause of so many phantom problems - as he paved a path to the White House. 

Kennedy himself was going to run for president in 1940, even though he doubted Americans would vote for a Catholic.  FDR’s decision to seek a third term made this a moot point. 

Then it was going to be Joseph Jr., but he was killed in World War II.  And so it was JFK. 

And the old man was able to witness it, even though his powers were diminished by strokes.

This meant he also had to stand by powerlessly as Jack and Bobby were killed.

In the end, Joseph P. Kennedy was admirable and loathsome.  But he most definitely was - for better or worse - a product of the American immigrant experience.

(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan@blogspot.com or tomdeignan@earthlink.net)

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