Sunday, 30 August 2009
Even before Mary Jo Kopechne died, there was the patriarch Joseph Patrick Kennedy Senior.
In the 1980s, I had the opportunity to attend a Fourth of July neighbourhood party on the bank of the Delaware River. It was a day-long 'happening', replete with platters of delicious food, and bustling with many home-crafted amusements for the numerous children of working class families of mixed Irish, Polish, and German ancestry. Several generations jostled verbally and physically with good cheer and great kindness. I felt quite comfortable and welcome in this environment where Catholic and Democrat culture dominated.
Later that evening the discussion turned to politics; Reagan was in his second term of office. The owner of a local general store, a man in his sixties who had listened to commiserations about the failure of the Democrats to rally 'round and present a strong candidate like say, JFK or RFK to counter the Republicans said quietly: "Joe Kennedy had a lot to answer for. If anyone should have been shot, it was him." Oddly, this remark did not provoke any protest; clearly this man had uttered this opinion before and his neighbours either shared it or couldn't offer any strong arguments in opposition.
Information about the Kennedy clan trickled out after the deaths of Joe Sr in 1969, matriarch Rose Fitzgerald in 1995 and Rosemary in 2005. In particular, shameful details regarding the factors that led Joe to subject his daughter to lobotomization ultimately hold up to scrutiny the values this man held. A revealing quote from president Roosevelt, asked when Joe was rewarded with an appointment to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission as the inaugural Chairman, why he had chosen such a crook. "Takes one to catch one," replied Roosevelt.
By all accounts, Joe was a devout and traditional Catholic; his actions demonstrated he was also a charming, smooth, amoral and ethically depraved financial operator and political opportunist. Did his irrational and omnipresent fear of Communism allow him to justify to himself why he encouraged his daughters to date the odious Joe McCarthy?
There have been a few opinion pieces that suggest circumstances surrounding the death of Mary Jo Kopechne transformed Senator Edward Kennedy into a crusader for social justice who was admired and respected by many.
I believe that Joe Kennedy's children and to a certain extent, his grandchildren were damaged by the toxic heritage of testosterone-fuelled, high-risk-taking behaviours passed on and sanctioned by the patriarch. But I also think that in reaction to the inherent hypocrisy and the great harm done, most of his progeny consciously chose to redress and redeem Joe's terrible legacy, armed with a sense of duty and animated by an acute awareness of the sources of the family wealth they've enjoyed.
The brilliance, the generosity and the dedication of the Kennedy's individual and familial commitment was - and still is, as the work of Rory Kennedy demonstrates - constant and far-reaching. One has to wonder if Eunice Kennedy Shriver's high-profile involvement with the Special Olympics was a gentle way of reminding Joe that he was directly responsible for the permanent condition that afflicted Rosemary.