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Bedeviled by the details

The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings -- A Five-Generation History of the Ultimate Irish-Catholic Family; Thomas Maier; Basic Books: 704 pp., $29.95

November 09, 2003|David Horowitz | David Horowitz is the author of the forthcoming "Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey" and the co-author, with Peter Collier, of "The Kennedys" and "The Rockefellers." He is the editor of

No family still active in public life has been the subject of more biographical interest than the Kennedys. Their literary charisma is so great, in fact, that no Kennedy life seems unexamined and no publishing season passes without a Kennedy bestseller. Now comes "The Kennedys," a 700-page, five-generation history written by New York Newsday reporter Thomas Maier. The inevitable question arises: Why is this Kennedy book different from all the rest?

Maier has a ready answer. He has subtitled his book, "America's Emerald Kings" and billed it as the story of "the ultimate Irish-Catholic family." This is a presumptuous claim that no author should be expected to fulfill, but Maier tries anyway, repeating the challenge in his text: "Since their arrival in this land, the Kennedys have been exemplars of the Irish-Catholic experience in America."

One could argue exactly the reverse. Most Kennedy biographers have been impressed by the way the family did not so much exemplify as transcend their ethnic beginnings. "Camelot," for example, which was the Kennedys' self-named moment in the American sun, was an English court, and JFK was himself a noted Anglophile. Maier acknowledges these facts but treats them as extraneous to the story he wants to tell.

Even more problematic for Maier's thesis is the fact that Joseph P. Kennedy, "the founding father" of the Kennedy epic, turned his back on Irish Boston, where his father, P.J. Kennedy, had been a typical ethnic pol. He moved the family seats to waspy Hyannisport, Mass., and Palm Beach, Fla., directing its aspirations toward such un-Irish horizons as Hollywood, London and Washington. In doing so, he began the process of launching one of the most remarkable (and decidedly un-ethnic) political careers in American history.

Maier's attention to Irish and Catholic themes of this saga is also not original. Doris Kearns Goodwin and other serious Kennedy biographers have paid attention to these elements. The question Maier's book raises is just how much attention is appropriate.

No other biographer has begun a Kennedy narrative, for example, with 34 pages of social history about Ireland, County Wexford and Dunganstown, where the Kennedys' remote ancestors lived. Part of the reason is that we know virtually nothing about these ancestors and only a handful of facts about the Kennedy who came to America in 1848. Nor do we know much about his American son, even though P.J. Kennedy was a powerful Boston politician and Massachusetts legislator whose "story" takes us to page 50 in Maier's text.

The problem with this material is not that it lacks interest but that it is not particularly connected to the individuals who are the proper subject of the text. The material that is relevant could be summarized in five pages rather than 50. Maier seems to have been more intent on creating a big book with an "original" selling point rather than on meeting this basic authorial obligation. As a result, his claim that he adds a new dimension to the Kennedy story remains largely unfulfilled, despite his efforts.

This problem is dramatized at the end of the introductory pages, when Maier recounts his interview with a Kennedy cousin, Mary Kennedy Ryan, in Ireland. P.J. Kennedy had visited Ryan's family on one occasion and corresponded with them until his death in 1929. But the account of his interview ends with Ryan's reminiscence of what followed P.J.'s demise: "We sat in front of the fire and read [the letters] and then we burned them one at a time." In other words, we know nothing about this relationship but secondhand opinions 70 years removed.

Every writer of biographies mourns the moments and the material he or she has unearthed that cannot be included in the work. A biography is not an archive; it is a selective rendering of the facts that is to be judged on how it shapes the story in a way that helps us to understand a life. Large swaths of Maier's hefty text contribute nothing to this understanding. And that is not the end of the problem, for what goes into a text necessarily keeps other material out. Thus Mary Ryan is mentioned or discussed on fully 13 pages, even though she met an American Kennedy on only three occasions -- one of them ceremonial -- over a 30-year period and only for a couple of hours at that. In contrast to his extensive treatment of Mary Ryan, Maier pays little or no attention to far more significant figures: Marilyn Monroe (whom he mentions on two pages only in passing and without indicating her affairs with John and Robert Kennedy), Sam Giancana (one page) and Mary Jo Kopechne (one page).

Why does Sen. Joseph McCarthy merit attention on 19 pages while Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa -- about whose relationship with Bobby Kennedy whole books have been written -- merits no mention at all? The answer is the same for all of these examples: McCarthy was Irish Catholic and the others were not.

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