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Commentary | PERSPECTIVES ON THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

Do Fathers Know Best?

Politics: Critics who say George the elder is calling the shots should look back at Joe Kennedy's control of JFK.

August 02, 2000|JOHN MERONEY | John Meroney is associate editor of American Enterprise magazine

Among the questions that presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer will likely have for George W. Bush this fall is one asking the governor to explain precisely what role his father plays in his campaign, and how involved former President Bush would be in his administration.

Critics of the Texas governor, giddy with the revelations that Bush senior weighed in on his son's vice presidential selection, are now insinuating that the former president may be calling many more of the shots in his son's campaign. Al Gore has already made this a theme of his campaign talking points, and some in the press are creating a caricature of a White House where telephone operators scramble to hunt down Poppy every time Dubya has a decision to make.

We've seen this very scenario before: John F. Kennedy was the ultimate daddy's boy. Everyone knew Kennedy senior had sway over his sons, but historical evidence now shows that almost every political move JFK made was micromanaged by his Papa Joe. Yet there's seldom ever a question about whether President Kennedy was all man, and those who see something suspect in the Bushs' relationship have yet to cast aspersions on the Kennedy legacy.

George H.W. Bush and Joseph P. Kennedy both had influential fathers and were sons who wanted to be president. Not getting the job made Joe's ambition for his sons burn even hotter. After his most promising son was killed in World War II, Kennedy, who had been U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James under FDR, began focusing his attention on Jack. From hiring ghostwriters for his son's book, "Profiles in Courage," to ordering his own employees to buy huge quantities of it so the book would become a best-seller, and even ginning up the works at the Pulitzer Prize board to ensure the book received an award, Joe Kennedy worked tirelessly to launch JFK onto the national scene. Apparently, George W.'s campaign biography, "A Charge to Keep," doesn't have as many friends in high places.

"Without Joe, Jack never would have entered politics," Joseph Timilty, Ambassador Kennedy's close friend, once said. And when JFK first ran for Congress in 1946, Dad decided on Jack's positions on the issues and ran the campaign's war room. Tip O'Neill, who later represented the same congressional district, once said that Joe was the "real force" behind JFK.

Los Angeles is an important city in Kennedy lore, and Democrats are planning great fanfare to remember it as the site of the 1960 convention, when Kennedy was nominated. What probably won't get much attention, though, are the stories about Joe helping his son manage the convention while holed up in Marion Davies' Beverly Hills estate.

Even in the loneliest job in the world, President Kennedy seemed to have a constant companion. "I can feel Pappy's eyes on the back of my neck," JFK once told a friend. Historian William Manchester revealed that Kennedy was the one who suggested his son hire Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara.

While Joe always had a recommendation for his son, he was more passionate about some matters than others. Then-Florida Sen. George Smathers once recalled a Palm Beach poolside conversation between father and son about who ought to be attorney general. This time, Dad was looking out for son Bobby, who needed legal experience. "He deserves to be attorney general, and by God, that's what he's going to be. Do you understand that?" "Yes, sir," Jack gulped.

And when Joe wasn't advising the nation's CEO about who to hire and what to do, he was seeing after Jack's legacy. Joe Kennedy pitched the idea of making a film of "PT-109," the book about JFK's World War II rescue of his fellow servicemen, to old pal Jack Warner. After it was green-lighted, JFK approved the script and Cliff Robertson, the actor who played him, while Joe negotiated the rights.

Having helped Jack and Bobby with jobs, Joe next set his sights on improving the prospects for Ted. "You boys have what you want," Joe told the two oldest ones. "Now it's Ted's turn. Whatever he wants, I'm going to see he gets it." And what do you know? Teddy got a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts.

George W. Bush will no doubt continue to call on his father for advice. And that's the way it should be between father and son. But one has the suspicion that, if elected, the patriarchy wouldn't weigh as heavily on George W.'s shoulders--or the country's--as it did with Jack.

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