Give us more, more, more books on the Kennedys Family sagas: Through and in all these endless volumes, America finds jTC itself.

The Argument

April 28, 1996|By Christopher Caldwell | Christopher Caldwell,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There aren't enough books about the Kennedy family. The world will continue to read and read more of them, the most recent of which is out this week, "Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded," by Ronald Kessler (Warner Books. 480 pages. $24.95). And the world, or Americans anyway, need this ceaseless outpouring.

Can there be anyone in the United States who isn't thoroughly bored of the Kennedys? In your average chain bookstore, literally half the books in the American history section concern the family in one way or another. Now that there are biographies of Kathleen (the elder) and Rose, detailed monographs on Chappaquiddick and JFK's sex life, studies of Rosemary's lobotomy and Jackie O's status as a gay icon, not to mention a mind-boggling library of assassination books, can we now say that we've reached the saturation point?

No. For one thing, the family keeps spewing revelatory documents and tidbits, like some Eastern European country recently rescued from communism. Such information came late and was hard-won. Not until Richard Whalen's magisterial "Founding Father" appeared in 1964 - a year after President Kennedy's death - did most Americans find out that the Kennedy fortune (one of the top two dozen in the country when JFK was elected) had come from an unsavory of mix of insider trading, whiskey smuggling and abuse of high office.

That information was the beginning of an avalanche. Whalen's masterpiece may have been the first to cast a cold eye on the Kennedy family, but it was not exhaustive. Thirty years later, even Ronald Kessler's book, a much less ambitious effort than Whalen's, comes up with startling new information. For instance:

* Joe Kennedy's anti-Semitism has long been a matter of semi-public record; but it's taken until now to reveal the extent of his sympathies - even his information-sharing - with the Nazi diplomatic corps when he was serving as ambassador to Britain in the late 1930s. (Kennedy made between $20,000 and $500,000, depending on your estimate, selling Czech securities short in the week leading up to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia.)

* Lawrence Creamer's 1994 "The Kennedy Women" hinted darkly that the lobotomy performed on JFK's sister Rosemary may have been less to cure her than to get her out of the way; Kessler, having done the first-ever interview with the doctor who performed the operation, shares Creamer's opinion.

* It was Axel Madsen's "Gloria and Joe" that gave the full story of how Joe Kennedy was too busy cheating on his wife with Gloria Swanson to attend his father's funeral. But it was left to Kessler to reveal how Joe excused himself for not leaving Hollywood. "If I did," he said, "the Jews would rob me blind." And Kessler's book isn't exceptional. Every book has something new to add: JFK's promiscuity was almost universally known once Whalen, Henry Fairlie and others began to write skeptically of the Kennedys in the 1960s. But that JFK had actually contracted gonorrhea at Harvard was not revealed until Nigel Hamilton's "JFK: Reckless Youth" was published in 1992.

Engineered propaganda

The reason the information has come out in such tantalizing dribbles, of course, is that the Kennedys, again like a newly de-Communized nation, are not only political figures but also a sort of self-perpetuating propaganda apparatus. If a book had too much new in it - like William Manchester's 1964 "Death of a President" or Kennedy intimate Richard Burke's 1992 "The Senator: My Ten Years With Ted Kennedy," which alleged drug abuse - the family's lawyers and allies in the publishing industry would intercede to squelch it.

Political operatives like speechwriter Ted Sorenson formed a Chinese wall between the family and the public's desire to know. In the Chappaquiddick incident, in fact, Sorenson actually wrote Ted Kennedy's lines as the story was developing. Credulous newsmen (like Arthur Krock and James Reston), historians (like James MacGregor Burns) and old Kennedy allies in the press (like Richard Goodwin) more often than not accepted the Kennedy cabal's version as gospel truth.

Thus, in the continuing spate of Kennedy books, wrongs are exposed and justice done. But there is another, more serious, reason that we should welcome every new addition to the bloated corpus.

America changed with the Kennedys - and if general readers today show less interest in pre-Kennedy American history, it may be because it is only with the Kennedy administration that America becomes recognizable as the country we live in today. In reading about the Kennedys, we are reading about ourselves. While the family didn't create American institutions as consciously as FDR did, it embodied certain aspects of modern life in this country. Let's take a brief list:

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