- Historic Sites
The Thirties And Teddy
A fine documentary on the Great Depression, an admirable accompanying book—and a truly wretched biography
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
It fails miserably on all three counts. As biography it is inept: Edward Kennedy’s Senate career is virtually ignored, and the senator himself vanishes for pages at a time so that the author can drub the other members of his family. The line between fact and fiction is not so much blurred as nonexistent; the author’s sole criteria for including an allegation, no matter how unsubstantiated, seem to be (1) that it has already been printed in someone else’s book, no matter what that book’s quality, and (2) that it fit his overall thesis that the Kennedys were uniformly fraudulent, that they were as wicked as we once believed them good.
As a “rumination” The Last Brother is simply absurd. Throughout, McGinniss claims to know what he cannot possibly know: the most intimate thoughts of people, living and dead, to whom he has never so much as spoken, and the precise content of private conversations, many of which may never even have taken place. He conducted “many dozens of interviews,” he writes, but dares not name a single member of this phantom horde of interviewees because “many—knowing that the Kennedy family did not wish to cooperate with me in any way—spoke only on condition of anonymity.” (He doesn’t explain why we can’t have the names of those who did not so insist, and if there are fresh quotations in this book, this inveterate reader of books about the Kennedys, pro and con, failed to spot them.)
One would suppose there were sufficient harrowing details—and enough sordid ones—in the Kennedy family history without anyone’s needing to postulate still more. Yet here is McGinniss ruminating about Edward Kennedy pacing the beach at Hyannis on the day after the President’s murder: “Suppose—not that there is any evidence that he considered this—he suddenly just veered left, away from his sister, and plunged, fully clothed, into the roiling, frigid waters of Nantucket Bay? … Then floated on his back and let the cold waves carry him wherever they might. … But of course he couldn’t do that. Instead, he returned to his father’s house. …”
Even the Kennedys’ ability to carry on with their lives after deaths and assassinations is twisted by McGinniss into a cynical ploy.
That sort of thing—baseless and over-wrought—is bad enough, but McGinniss also offers dozens (perhaps “many dozens”) of unsubstantiated, scurrilous, and often cruel speculations as if they were facts. After suggesting, for example, that Edward Kennedy got his future wife pregnant and then married her for that reason alone—an assertion for which not a shred of evidence is offered—he appends the following exegesis: “Given the impulsive, careless behavior he so often displayed in other aspects of his life, such an occurrence would not have been impossible. It is true that no child was born the following year, but also true that if Joan had miscarried … it would not have been a development the Ambassador [Joseph Kennedy] would have publicized.”
In the same feckless spirit, McGinniss alleges—again with no evidence other than that similar speculation has once appeared previously in print- that Joseph Kennedy had his retarded daughter Rosemary lobotomized for fear she would reveal that he had molested her. “Kennedy family biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin has heatedly refuted any such notion,” he admits, but then adds: “The documentation that might resolve the question remains sealed to researchers.” (What possible “documentation” could there be? Does McGinniss really believe there’s a note from the ambassador to the surgeon somewhere in the Kennedy Library, spelling out his allegedly wicked motive for wanting the operation performed?)
Again, the author claims Joseph Kennedy insisted Robert Kennedy be made Attorney General in 1961 so that J. Edgar Hoover “got all he wanted”- which included promises to go easy on the Mafia and slow on civil rights. (This would surely have come as news to Jimmy Hoffa and the scores of other thugs the Kennedy Justice Department zealously pursued, to Governors Ross Barnett and George C. Wallace- and to Hoover himself.)
Even the Kennedys’ remarkable ability to carry on with their lives after deaths and assassinations is twisted by McGinniss into a cynical ploy. “Every tragedy contained within itself the seed of enhanced opportunity,” he writes. “The secret was in knowing how to cultivate this rare and fragile life form. Each new death, if properly managed in terms of public relations, was also, for the survivors, a growth opportunity.”
Last year in these pages I wrote that Nigel Hamilton, the author of JFK , seemed to me to be altogether too relentless in his hostility to his subject’s parents, too willing to report undocumented gossip. Compared with Joe McGinniss, Nigel Hamilton is a hagiographer.