November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
A fine documentary on the Great Depression, an admirable accompanying book—and a truly wretched biography
It has been six years since Henry Hampton’s extra-ordinary six-part documentary series Eyes on the Prize first ran on public television and reminded us, as nothing ever had before, of the role that ordinary citizens—black and white, but mostly black—played in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.
In The Great Depression , the seven-part series currently being aired on PBS, Hampton’s organization Blackside, Inc., has now done the same for the struggle for democracy in the 1930s. “Somehow, in the hardest of hard times,” says the narrator in the first program, nicely summarizing the whole series, “with America slipping away, our parents and grandparents found it within themselves to fight their way out... . They may have done an imperfect job, but by the time the Great Depression was over, they had done better than simply save America, they had made a new America.”
The new series does not have quite the immediacy of its predecessor, simply because so many of the men and women the producers would like to have interviewed are gone. But even when they have had to settle for their protagonists’ children, old memories retain their sting: an interview with the son of the bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd intercut with one with the son of a lawman Floyd shot down, for example, and perhaps most chillingly memorable, the eerily unrepentant son of Tom Girdler, the Republic Steel magnate whose mindless intransigence helped bring about the deaths of ten unarmed strikers and the wounding of many more in what came to be called the Memorial Day Massacre in South Chicago in 1937.
This is a rich portrait of a tumultuous era, and it manages to cover an enormous amount of ground—from the failures of the Hoover administration through the limited successes of the New Deal to the coming of the war that finally ended the Depression—without overlooking any section of the country or straying far from the lives of the ordinary citizens most affected by it all.
In the second program the White House butler Alonzo Fields recalls a meeting of Herbert Hoover’s cabinet in early 1932 at which the subject of Gov. Franklin Roosevelt’s potential presidential candidacy came up; it was generally agreed that FDR could never be elected President once the people discovered that he was “only a half-man.”
That half-man remains mostly in the background, important only as he and his administration touch upon the local struggles the producers have chosen to chronicle; thus, for example, he remains a hero to those who recall his support for their struggle to organize Northern industry, but he badly let down the mostly black members of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, who asked only to be allowed their fair share of the money bestowed upon Arkansas farmers by the Agricultural Adjustment Act.
Again, it is the most intensely personal stories that stay with the viewer longest. I was especially struck by a Detroit woman’s memories of the Depression’s corrosive impact on her childhood. Her father had lost his job at Ford, she explains, and her mother supported the family by baking bread and selling it door to door: “One of the worst things about that era for me was listening to my parents’ arguments. After we got in bed, they would begin to argue—argue constantly about money, argue about sex. … [Dad] was home all day doing nothing. He was full of energy when he went to bed at night, but Mother was exhausted from the baking and caring for her eight children. So I would lie there quivering all over and I’d put the pillow over my head and just pray that they would stop.”
Blackside prides itself on the collective spirit of its decision making, so I want to be sure to include here the names of the producers who made these seven hours: Jon Else, Terry Kay Rockefeller, Dante James (responsible for the third and fifth shows), Lynn Goldfarb, Stephen Sept, and Susan Bellows.
T. H. Watkins, now the editor of Wilderness magazine but also the biographer of Harold Ickes and a former editor with this magazine, has written a vivid, handsomely illustrated companion volume to the series, The Great Depression: America in the 1930’s (Little, Brown), which is well worth having even if you don’t own a television set.
Joe McGinniss’s The Last Brother: The Rise and Fall of Teddy Kennedy (Simon & Schuster) is emphatically not worth having. The noisy argument over whether its author’s startlingly faithful adherence to the ordering of facts carefully gathered by other, and better, writers actually constitutes plagiarism has, I’m afraid, obscured just what a very odd, very bad book he has written.
McGinniss himself doesn’t seem sure just what it is: when pressed on the “Today” program, he insisted his book “ is a biography … is nonfiction,” but in the understandably defensive author’s note hastily bound into each copy of the book after prepublication news stories threatened to damage sales, he calls it a “rumination.”
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. …”
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.