Tuesday, 6 October 2009

“The Kennedy Legacy”, by Vincent Bzdek (Palgrave MacMillan)


Through the brothers, an examination of the Kennedy family’s impact on the US and its politics

The Kennedy Legacy is an unusual book, in that it examines this most famous family’s ‘legacy’ primarily from the perspective of the youngest brother, Teddy, rather than predominantly through the tragic figures of his brothers Jack and Bobby. Gary Hart once indelicately wrote,

“The way it worked was the old man would push Joe, Joe would push Jack, Jack would push Bobby, Bobby would push Teddy, and Teddy would fall on his ass.”

In The Kennedy Legacy, the author shows how Teddy went on to not only avoid falling on his ass, but enjoying a long, successful career in the Senate – some even might say it was, due its longevity, more successful than either Jack’s or Bobby’s. Bzdek’s intention is to show how each brother affected the others, while keeping an eye on Teddy’s place in each ‘era’, how he saw and interacted with his brothers and, ultimately, how he dealt with the heavy burden of carrying the Kennedy torch.

Each part of the book covers the time when a specific brother was the focus or vehicle of family patriarch Joseph Kennedy’s considerable ambitions (he once boasted of wanting to ‘beat’ the Adamses by having more than one son become President). With this approach in mind, the book is separated into the times when first Joe Jr., followed by Jack, Bobby, and finally Teddy bore the Kennedy mantle and family aspirations.

Before this, however, Bzdek offers a portrait of life in the Kennedy household. As someone who has not read that widely on the Kennedy family, I found this introductory chapter (“The Blowtorch”) to be interesting and very informative: Joe Sr and Rosemary Kennedy’s parenting style was quite marshal and very strict, with every family dinner coming across like a catered class or lecture in politics, debate, and history (complete with visiting speakers). These dinners were merely an extension of the aforementioned ambitions of the father.

“The intense pressure Joe Sr. put on his children to succeed was somewhat deflected by the older kids, allowing Ted and the other young ones to fly a little lower under the radar.”

Joe Kennedy Snr. was determined that his children would make a difference in the world and “be somebody”. He certainly got his wish on this account, as Bzdek outlines the achievements of all four of the Kennedy sons. He didn’t get his wish to ‘beat’ the Adamses, but he certainly helped create an enduring Kennedy dominance of Massachusetts and, to an extent, American national politics. (I haven’t gone into details here in the review as the Kennedys are such a highly-publicised family, I thought I’d stick with my opinions on the book itself.)

An interesting new approach to the Kennedy family and its place in US politics, this book compliments Teddy Kennedy’s posthumously-released memoir. Bzdek’s prose are clear and well-constructed, making for an interesting and pleasurable read. His use of extensive interviews with (and exhaustive research into) Kennedy family members and friends brings a good deal of first-hand opinions and memories of the brothers and the rest of the Kennedy clan. Each aspect of the Kennedys’ lives are covered, focusing of course on the political aspects of their careers. Teddy’s role in the family dynamic is well portrayed; the descriptions of his relationship with his brothers and how they interacted illuminating and also explanatory for some of the events and actions they undertook.

I don’t think I’d go so far as to describe this as ‘revelatory’ as, even though this is actually the first book I’ve read on the Kennedys, most of the content will likely be known already – even if only in passing or through other sources. It is, overall, complimentary and pro-Kennedy, which might disappoint people who would have preferred something a little more balanced. However, Bzdek does not shy away from detailing and discussing the more infamous aspects of Kennedy history, leaving it all on the page for readers to make their own decisions and draw their own conclusions – he reserves his more complimentary passages to Teddy’s senate career and his input and impact on Obama’s election campaign.

As an introduction to the Kennedys, this is a pretty good place to start. Bzdek shows how the brothers ‘passed the torch’ to each other, how their collective efforts have changed and shaped America, and also who might be the Kennedy’s torch-bearer now. It sounds arch, perhaps, and just a little too much like sycophancy, but really Bzdek does an excellent job, and The Kennedy Legacy was a very good read.

I would recommend it to anyone interested in US politics and, of course, the Kennedy family itself.

Also try: Teddy Kennedy, True Compass: A Memoir (2009); Peter Canellos, Last Lion: The Fa'll and Rise of Ted Kennedy (2009); Peter Collier, The Kennedys: An American Drama (2001); Richard D. Mahoney, Sons & Brothers: The Days of Jack and Bobby (2000); Laurie Kennedy, The Importance of Being Kennedy (2008); David Talbot, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (2008)

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