JFK’s complicated father

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Father, SEC Chairman, Hollywood movie executive, U.S. Ambassador to Britain, anti-Semite, bootlegger?

Not words one hears together often, and definitely not what you’d expect about the patriarch of one of America’s most famous political families. But Joseph P. Kennedy earned various titles throughout his life—some deserved, and others debunked in David Nasaw’s new book “The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy.”

Nasaw, who had unprecedented access to family documents and audio tapes, depicts Kennedy as a complicated father, businessman, and political mind often at odds with the very people he loved and cared for the most.

During his time in politics, Nasaw said to The Cycle hosts Wednesday, Kennedy was isolationist and against the creation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, and the Truman Doctrine—a stark Republican comparison to his sons, who some consider to be the founders of modern liberalism.

“There’s this one moment in time in which [Joseph]’s talking to Supreme Court [Justice] William O. Douglas—the ultimate liberal—and he says to him, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me. The two people I love most in the world are you and Jack, my son, and I don’t agree with anything either of you ever has to say.’” Still, “he was a great, great, father, and he raised his kids to be independent, he raised his kids to think for themselves, and they thought for themselves. And he kept encouraging them.”


Kennedy was also called an anti-Semite and a Nazi-sympathizer. And while he was, in fact, “virulently anti-Semitic,” Nasaw insists that the Nazi-sympathizer stigma was “certainly not deserved.”

“He was against any American involvement in the war…But that was not because he wanted Hitler to rule the world at all. He did that because he was convinced that if we entered the war, the strain on the economy would be such that we’d go back into the Depression, things would be worse than before… everything that America stood for would be threatened, if we had to go into a war.”


His opposition to the war did not stop it; nor did it stop him from losing his oldest son to t he conflict. By the end of his life, Joseph Kennedy had outlived four of his own children, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy among them. Nasaw describes this experience as “an unspeakable, unimaginable tragedy for anyone. And for Kennedy, who believed so much in his children and put so much faith in his kids, it was unspeakable.”

For all that he did in politics and endured in his personal life, Joseph P. Kennedy’s lasting gift was the love of civil service that he left to his children.

“He told his kids early on, he said, ‘I’m making all this money, I’m going to leave each of you a trust fund of a million dollars, but that’s not so you can go play…that’s because we want you to go into public service…’ And they did.”

JFK's complicated father

Updated