The Kennedy Legacy: Thoughts and Questions

26 Aug

Many names are instantly recognizable in American history, for better or worse – King, Lincoln, Bush, among others – but one name outstrips them all for sheer romanticism.


The Kennedy family name transcends government and politics; the magnitude of the Kennedy mythos approaches legendary status in American consciousness. JFK’s administration during his short tenure in office has frequently been referred to as “Camelot”, painting the Kennedy family as a sort of American royalty. Individually, members of the Kennedy clan have been venerated and castigated; their story is, at once, one of controversy and celebration. It seems to me, however, that the Kennedy legacy is ingrained in the public mind as a noble tradition, representative of the very best of the American way of life.

Which to me, as an amateur historian and political pundit, begs the question – why?

The reason, of course, that I’m dealing with this topic today, is the much-publicized death of Senator Edward Moore “Teddy” Kennedy, who passed away last night after a protracted battle with brain cancer. Ted lived his life, as did much of his family, in the political spotlight, and his death has once again thrust his illustrious family into the forefront of the media’s eye and the country’s imagination. The media’s attention would lead us to canonize the Senator, as it has canonized deceased members of his family for generations, for his many positive contributions to American politics and the betterment of democracy.

ted kennedy 1

Which goes to prove, I guess, what I’ve always postulated to be true – you can be the world’s biggest asshole in life, but the minute you die – especially if it’s an unpleasant death – people leap out of the woodwork to wax nostalgic on how great a guy you were.

My intent in this post isn’t to drag the Kennedy name through the mud or make any kind of overreaching statements about their moral fiber (well, maybe I’ll make a few). I just find it awfully hard to understand how the American people can blind themselves to the rotten core at the heart of their nations’ most exalted family. Let me preface this little jaunt through history by saying the political elements of the Kennedy family have periodically promoted causes I support; several of them have even done some good in the world. I’m not going to deny any of that. But I consider it my duty, as a reasonably well-educated cat, to offset what will doubtless be weeks’ worth of excruciating idolatry and glorification of a man who, by all rights, was very much a flawed human being – and certainly not the saint the media will make him out to be.

Let’s go back a bit, shall we, to the patriarch himself – Joseph P. Kennedy, who rose to prominence in the early to mid 1900s by way of savvy stock investment and, according to some sources, shady business dealings with the Chicago mob, including significant stakes in bootlegging of alcohol during Prohibition. These allegations were never proven, but his company’s exclusive import contracts for Dewar’s Scotch and Gordon’s Gin directly following the end of Prohibition would lead some to believe he may have been delving into the business before it was entirely legal. His much-touted association with noted Mafia leader Gilorma “Sam” Giancana also lends credence to these theories.

joseph kennedy

Controversies surrounding Joe Sr. abound: some claim the outcome of the 1960 presidential election, which ended with the ascension of Joe’s son John F. Kennedy to the Presidency, was determined in no small way by Giancana’s strong-arm influence in the Illinois area. In plain English, it would appear Joe teamed up with organized crime in order to buy an election for his son.

In the meantime, Joe was also an outspoken anti-Communist and anti-Semite – considering Nazi assaults on the Jewish population as having been “brought on themselves”. In his role as Ambassador to Great Britain, he publicly urged the United States to refuse support to that nation during World War II. He is quoted as saying “[d]emocracy is finished in England. It may be here.” After the war, Joe became a vocal supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy – best known for his paranoid Cold War rants about the prevalence of Soviet spies and sympathizers on U.S. soil. Joe was a major financial contributor to McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations: a government-funded witch hunt for Communists whose aggressive tactics have been widely criticized in years since.

joe mccarthy

And this is the grand-daddy of the Kennedy clan. Talk about being born under a bad sign.

Next on the docket is the Golden Boy himself – the Prince who would be President, John F. Kennedy. It’s not easy to scare up a lot of dirt on this man, because for all intents and purposes, he’s basically been deemed a saint by most of the Western world. Hard to argue with that: for one thing, he’s a decorated war hero – due largely to one of the most patently unbelievable war stories ever recounted. Whether it happened or not, the story of PT-109 elevated young Lieutenant Kennedy to legendary status even before he ran for President. His natural charisma and movie-star looks propelled him in a meteoric rise through the political ranks, unprecedented for someone his age – though the argument can be made some of this may have had something to do with Joe’s political pull and financial backing. The development of the Peace Corps, not to mention his arguably-brilliant political maneuvering during the Cuban Missile Crisis, only served to heighten his popularity.


The only real gossip to be had about JFK, apart from his assassination (I’ll get to that), is his alleged affair with Marilyn Monroe, which may or may not have had something to do with her death. The only information I could garner on that topic was so deeply rooted in tinfoil-hat theory I couldn’t bring myself to write about it here, but suffice to say something awfully fishy was going on with those two. That’s not a new thing, by the way – people having affairs is hardly unusual, so it doesn’t really count.

marilyn monroe

And then there was the much-touted assassination. By all rights, it looks like JFK was one of the cleaner elements of the Kennedy clan, but it would appear he may have bit the hand that fed him. One of the major platforms of his administration was the deconstruction of the Mafia crime syndicate, a move that couldn’t have pleased his dad’s friends in the business. By now everybody knows that Lee Harvey Oswald probably didn’t kill the President – a lot of theories circulate regarding who actually pulled the trigger, but I don’t think it would be totally out of left field to attribute the murder to organized crime, the CIA, or maybe both. That’s just what happens when government gets mixed up with the people they’re supposed to be jailing.

jfk assassination

There isn’t much point in following this line of thought, though, because we’re never going to get the skinny on what really went down, so let’s move onto one more shining example of Kennedy “honor” before we get to the man of the hour.

John F. Kennedy, Jr. was supposed to be the heir to Camelot’s throne. He inherited his looks from his mother and father equally, remaining the only non-actor to be named People Magazine’s “Sexiest Person Alive”, and initially his career seemed promising. Then he failed the bar exam in New York – twice. His magazine, George, was a financial flop. Even his death was an exercise in “what the fuck were you thinking”. On a night that other pilots stayed home, citing terrible weather conditions, John-John (with next-to-no flight experience in inclement conditions) declined the offer of a CFI to fly with him and took off headed for Martha’s Vineyard. Somewhere along the way, Jr. “failed to maintain control of the aircraft during a descent over water at night” and plowed his plane into the water, killing himself, his wife and her sister instantly. In typical Kennedy fashion, a wrongful death lawsuit lobbied by the families involved was settled out-of-court to the tune of $50 million, mostly to avoid the negative publicity associated with a public trial. When John’s death was announced, the media went absolutely ape shit, a la Michael Jackson, racing to cover the life and times of this stalwart American who, as Henry Rollins famously noted, was famous for essentially nothing other than being the son of a much-beloved President and a member of an incredibly powerful, well-connected family.

JFK jr

Is anybody else noticing a bit of a trend here? If you haven’t yet, you will.

And now we get to the man of the hour, Ted Kennedy. Let’s lift up the rock and see what’s crawling around underneath, shall we?

teddy kennedy

Ted Kennedy began his illustrious career by getting expelled from Harvard University after getting a fellow student to take his freshman Spanish exam in his stead, because he was doing so poorly in the class he feared he’d lose out on the opportunity to play football the following year. Apparently, it’s standard Harvard doctrine in situations like these to allow an expelled student to reapply in a couple of years if they’re on their best behaviour, which is exactly what Teddy did – but I have a hard time believing they would extend that courtesy to someone whose last name wasn’t Kennedy or something equally as weighted.

In the two years between his tenures at Harvard, Teddy enlisted in the military. How noble – except for the fact that, thanks to his father’s political connections, he scored a plum assignment as a member of the Honor Guard in Paris, where he spent the Korean War traveling Europe on the weekends and even climbing the Matterhorn. How nice to be a senator’s son, no?

Teddy was also a notorious womanizer. An alleged affair with one Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969 ended rather abruptly when Teddy and Mary Jo left a party near Chappaquiddick, at which point Teddy drove his car into a pond. He got out – Mary Jo didn’t. Worse, he neglected to report the incident to police until Kopechne’s body was discovered the following day. The inquest into her death was conducted in a secret session of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, where Kennedy pleaded guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. His punishment? A suspended sentence of two months in jail. Judge James Boyle justified his decision based on Kennedy’s prior “unblemished” record and told the court Kennedy “has already been, and will continue to be punished far beyond anything this court could impose.”

You know, maybe it’s just me, but I feel like if I drove my car into a lake with somebody in the passenger seat and said passenger drowned, I would be in enough trouble. If I didn’t report it to the police I get the distinct impression I’d be getting a lot more than a two-month suspended sentence. I figure there would be people waiting on my lawn with pitchforks and lit torches. How nice to be a senator, no?

Things didn’t really get better for old Ted later in life. His issues with womanizing and alcoholism continued to plague him, resulting in some embarrassing moments in Washington bars with friend and fellow politician Chris Dodd, allegedly involving inappropriate contact with waitresses. Things really flared up in 1991 when Ted was connected to the infamous William Kennedy Smith rape case. Smith, Ted’s nephew, was accused by one Patricia Bowman of raping her while on vacation in Palm Beach, Florida. Subsequently, Kennedy sources released slanderous details of Bowman’s past to the press, and the entire fiasco became, well, a fiasco. Kennedy, while not directly involved with the case, was painted by the press as “the living symbol of the family’s flaws” – a drunken Irish lout.

I suppose it’s not a huge surprise, then, that Teddy was a public supporter of Bill “Slick Willy” Clinton during the ridiculous Monica Lewinsky impeachment trial.

bill clinton

This is the Kennedy legacy, folks. Murder, rape, extortion, bootlegging – it reads like a laundry list of the sort of thing that lands everybody else on the planet in jail. Granted, there are bright spots in there – even Teddy can list a lot of positive efforts on his resume – but that’s just my point.

People are good and bad in degrees. Brent at Two Assholes said the Kennedys were the personification of the American Dream, and I guess on the surface that’s true. But as George Carlin rightly pointed out, the American Dream is called as such because you have to be asleep to believe it – just as you’d have to be asleep to believe in Camelot. Nobody comes out clean at the end of their lives, and the Kennedys are no exception.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, my intent is not to vilify these people; my point has only been to humanize them in an effort to remind all of us that we need to take the good with the bad – it’s dangerous and irresponsible to put anybody on a pedestal, regardless what their name might signify in the public consciousness.

I’m genuinely sorry Ted Kennedy is dead – but let us all remember that he was just a man, like you or me, and the only legacy he or his illustrious family leaves is the same as anyone else’s: the legacy illustrated by our actions, positive and negative. We live in a world without heroes or honour: we might as well ensure we live in a world without illusions to the contrary.

open your eyes

5 Responses to “The Kennedy Legacy: Thoughts and Questions”

  1. Brent Chittenden August 27, 2009 at 12:16 AM #

    The Kennedy’s unfortunately were the personification of the American Dream. Dreams are something to look forward to. Think of it as kind of like a pony. A lot of little girls want a pony, they don’t want the shit that comes with it. And that was the same with the Kennedys. During the 60’s they were a bright shining light of what good COULD come out of a country being ripped apart by war both internal and external.

    And because of this, a lot of the country disregarded other facts. Even the man in hell prays that there is a Heaven.

  2. Shayla August 27, 2009 at 10:59 AM #

    As far as JFK goes, I’ve never understood why he was such a big thing for everyone; it comes out sounding like one of those intangible, contextually sensitive you-had-to-be-there things whenever someone of that generation tries to explain it to me. The only thing I really know about him are the facts I learned in history class, and personally I’m not so nuts about the whole Bay of Pig Invasion idea.

    The Marilyn Monroe thing is hardly a big deal. Practically all the U.S. presidents had affairs; the only thing that changed was how much attention the media gave it. Politicians have become increasingly celebritized, and Obama is a prime example of that.

  3. Canadian Sports Chick September 18, 2009 at 2:51 PM #

    I’m an avid Kennedy scholar and have been since childhood (not a fan, but a scholar) and I understand the mystique, but I also get what you’re saying. They’re just another rich, privelleged family, a lot of whom were less than ideal human beings. Besides William Kennedy Smith another nepew
    slept with the underage baby-sitter. There were a few other scandals as well, including a messy drug overdose by one of them in the 1980s.

    Also to me the kicker of the Chappaquiddick thing was that Kennedy’s wife was on bed rest due to a difficult pregnancy and was forced out of bed to appear with her husband in court, so that his public imagine wouldn’t take another hit and subsequently miscarried. There’s class for you–political image before everything else.

    As I said, I’ve always been fascinated by the Kennedys and there are some shining moments there, but there’s also a lot of mud and slime. Though, in Ted’s credit, he did have a great run in the senate and whatever personal flaws in his character, he was a good politician and did do good things for the country.

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