Why do the Kennedys fear history?

Nigel Hamilton

January 27, 1993|By Nigel Hamilton

IN September 1988 I arrived in the United States from Britain intending to write the first complete life of President John F. Kennedy, from his birth in 1917 to his assassination in 1963.

I was graciously welcomed by Jacqueline Onassis (my father had been a friend of JFK and of Robert F. Kennedy).

Sen. Edward Kennedy promised a series of interviews about his own family background, his grandfather John (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald, his parents and, above all, his elder brother. Unfortunately, Senator Kennedy canceled the interviews in 1989.

Nevertheless, when we met at Harvard the following year, he effusively praised my efforts, saying he had heard from Arthur Schlesinger what "fine" preliminary lectures on JFK's early years I'd given at my university.

Once again the senator promised help and cooperation and, to demonstrate his sincerity, called me over to meet his sister Eunice, who to my great delight promised to make available to me her unique letters from JFK. Sadly, the promises again proved empty.

Instead, six months later, I was called by Milton Gwirtzman, a Washington-based lawyer acting on behalf of the Kennedys, who asked me to "alter my attitude" toward Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Kennedy, as reflected in the very lectures Mr. Schlesinger had extolled and which had meanwhile been published in the New England Journal of Public Policy.

Taken aback by the lawyer's proposal, I countered that, despite my credentials as a scholarly biographer, I had not received one jot of help from the Kennedys -- after three years of promises.

I asked him to take a humble but firm message back to Washington: I would be glad to revise the portrait of JFK's parents, sketched in the lectures, if new evidence warranted such revision.

I pointed out that hundreds of early JFK letters were missing, having been removed from the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston by members of the Kennedy family or withheld from public access on their behalf.

If permitted to see these letters I would, if the evidence prove conclusive, willingly amend my somewhat unsparing account of JFK's childhood -- in particular, the emotional neglect by his mother when he was small, the despotism of his manically ambitious father and the effect of such a dysfunctional marriage on JFK's character.

In due course Mr. Gwirtzman was authorized to search the family's secret holdings in the library for evidence that would justify revision.

Letters were indeed found, he informed me, but they did not contradict my interpretation. As a result, I was not even permitted to see, let alone quote, from them.

Senator Kennedy declined to cooperate in any further way. Eunice Shriver, likewise.

Worse was to follow. On one occasion my private mail was opened and its contents discussed by the staff of the John F. Kennedy Library -- normally a federal offense.

Although the perpetrator was reprimanded by the director, the atmosphere at the library soured considerably.

The chief archivist, who had been on sick leave, was asked to resign on the day of his return. He had been a tower of strength to me and other researchers at the library. He bravely refused, with the immortal words, "You will have to shoot me first." But it was a very near thing.

Meanwhile, in deference to the Kennedys I was disinvited from an international academic conference on "JFK and Europe," held in Florence in October 1992.

Whether my 926-page historical biography -- which takes JFK's heroic early life up to the age of 29 -- merits the vituperative labels bestowed by the Kennedys in a Dec. 3 New York Times article (published in Other Voices Dec. 7), I am still too partial to judge.

Nevertheless, I emphatically reject the accusation that it is "reckless biography."

No author could have done more to solicit the help and involvement of the Kennedys at every stage of research.

Many collections, such as the Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy papers, are still under lock and key. Thousands of documents belonging to "open" collections have been removed or sanitized over the years to avoid the wrath of the Kennedys.

Countless crucial documents -- such as JFK's medical files -- lie moldering in the vaults amid debate over whether to risk family retribution and open them. And this in a federal archive!

Most significant, in the library's great collection of interviews with colleagues, friends and subordinates of President Kennedy (numbering more than 1,500), there is not one single available serious interview with a member of the family about JFK, the man and brother.

Is it too late for the Kennedys to alter their own attitude, as they once demanded I should alter mine? I do not think so. As the dust settles on the first edition of "JFK: Reckless Youth," perhaps Senator Kennedy and his sisters will rethink their response.

In my opinion they still have a vital historical contribution to make, if only they will bestir themselves. My plea to the Kennedys, then, is to stop fiddling while the memory of JFK burns.

Nigel Hamilton teaches history at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

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