Monday May 15, 2006
Yesterday I found a book of Rita’s – Winter Kills by Richard Condon. A roman a clef, sort of, but mostly his idea on what has happened (as of 1974) to the country. The John F. Kennedy assassination and cover up and various sequential contradictory cover stories – as a means of confusion. There are clues to what he thinks for those who can recognize them – Don Carlo Fortunato, for instance, of Naples, formerly of New York. Charlie Lucky, in other words: Lucky Luciano. I read all of Winter Kills feeling pretty sure that the big surprise ending was going to be a revelation that the father had killed the son. Got talked out of it for about a chapter. Sure enough. But great stress on the first eleven months of the presidency – eleven months from the inauguration takes us to Joe Kennedy’s stroke. Joe Kennedy’s life reveals the corruption of his times. Say –
Well, Mr. Kennedy, do you have any interest in talking to me?
Joe Kennedy’s view of the world
Because you’re nobody, you mean? Well, there isn’t anybody in my old world who’s more nobody than a dead man. So join the club.
You want to know what – how I felt? What made me tick? I can see your judgments about me. I won’t say you’re wrong, you’re learning. I had a clearer view of what’s what than you do, that’s all. I had a better seat and I made sure I kept it. The world I grew up in wasn’t for softies, and I wasn’t about to be left behind.
You know how much pious crap is spouted by society – it’s all so much pretentious horseshit. You know, yourself – you’ve said it more than once – that what people really take seriously are money and death. You don’t put it that way but that’s what it amounts to. Well – I always knew it. I didn’t buy the bunk. Roosevelt and all those guys that were born rich – could they have done what I did? And I made sure my sons could have done it too if they’d had to. I wanted them tough and strong and wide-open-eyed, and by God that’s what I got. Teddy the least of course, but that’s because he was the baby, and it didn’t seem to matter so much then.
Young Joe and Jack
Life is funny. It takes you places you never thought you’d go. I figured Joe would be the success of the family. I expected to spend twenty years making him president. Looking at it now, I can see probably he wouldn’t have made it. Another Joe Kennedy by name wouldn’t have helped, for one thing. And he didn’t have what Jack had. People might have been dazzled by him but they wouldn’t have been bowled over. If his life had gone the way Jack’s did and he’d been killed in mid-career, I don’t see how his picture would be on the walls of poor people all over the world. Of course I didn’t see it then, nobody could and who would have guessed any of it?
Nobody stops to think what I thought when Jack got killed. At most they think what would Joe have thought? And Bobby. It might have been easier if I’d been over here when they went – but maybe I needed to experience it there, I don’t know.
Well, what did you think? I was thinking you’d died before either one of them was killed, then I remembered that you hadn’t.
No. that book you just read, I know it was fiction but it’s a lot of crap. The guy thinks I’d put anything in front of my family, that just says more about him than me. That’s like saying I’d put something in front of my right arm. Sometimes you have to, because it’s the only way to save something and you have to choose what to lose, but you don’t lop off your family for the theoretical chance to make more money. Jesus Christ, what is money for? It’s so you can have a good life and give your family a good life, and have enough to protect yourself. And of course the more you have the more you need to protect, but it isn’t the same as saying that you want more, more, more for its own sake. Not unless you’re a horse’s ass or you can’t think of anything else to do but keep playing the game as if the game was life.
A red-headed Irishman
You remember somebody wrote that I was playing classical music and my [“employees?” “friends?” I couldn’t decide which was the right word] didn’t like it and I said “the trouble with you bastards is you don’t have any culture.” They told that story figuring that my saying the word “bastards” showed that I didn’t have any culture. That says worlds about them. I had culture; what I didn’t have was WASP manners. And that’s a whole different thing. A manner is a way of fitting in and showing certain others that you fit in. I got through Harvard all right. I could fit in when I needed to. But what I wasn’t, and what I had no interest in pretending to be, was a WASP. I was a red-headed Irishman, likely to kick the pillars down if I was crossed, and I didn’t let them forget it, and I’ll tell you why. If I hadn’t, they wouldn’t have let me forget it! It’s like laughing at yourself first except I wasn’t laughing, I was stopping them from putting me into an ethnic box by putting myself half-in, half-out.
Now, my boys, they might have been English, especially Jack. I raised them to come from the right schools and meet the right people and I was prominent enough and rich enough and colorful enough – and don’t think I didn’t work at that sometimes! – that I got them a sort of exception. They were as Irish as Aunt Bridget when it was convenient, and as English or as upper American as Macmillan when it was convenient, and neither thing was entirely true or entirely false. What they were, and you’ll understand this from your feeling about your own family, what they were was Kennedys first and everything else got tacked on.
Making your own rules
Made their own rules? Hell yes, and who do you suppose taught them to? In this world, I’d tell them, you have to make your own rules or live by somebody else’s.
Now, there isn’t any use pretending or fooling yourself into thinking that other people’s rules were made for anything but the convenience of the people making them. Like laws, like the rules of a club, like social etiquette – anything you can think of including morality and the ten commandments that everybody refers to and nobody can name or follow – it was all made up by somebody for some reason. I don’t mean exactly that one person made up any one rule, even laws. But there just isn’t and can’t be an impartial body that makes up rules that don’t favor anybody and come out for everybody’s benefit. Maybe God could do it but he doesn’t seem to have done it. So you’re on your own, really, and the main thing is whether you realize it. That’s what I taught my boys and I’d say they turned out all right, wouldn’t you?
So – when you saw them killed?
Reacting to Jack being killed
I didn’t actually see it, that was a mercy. What did I think? What did I feel? Well, here I am beyond the grave, I suppose there’s no harm telling.
I don’t know if you realize it but I was a very emotional man. I was in touch with myself very well. I know people think I was cold as ice, but they’re confusing cool judgment with lack of passion. Jack, same way. Well, you can see it maybe in stories about my temper – people don’t always think to connect a strong temper with strong feelings, I don’t know why. Yes I do: They think the temper comes out of an ego being blocked. But that’s too simple. And – people forget, and of course whose who never knew me don’t know it – I had enormous self-control. When reason and judgment said I had to sit on it, I sat on it, and maybe it showed and maybe it didn’t, but I was in control, not my temper. Even if I blew up, I didn’t blow up in a way to ruin anything, you understand?
How do you think I reacted? First of all, he was my son. Just like Joe, all that preparation, all that careful molding of character and experience, all that pride I had in how he’d turned out – and he was gone. It’s a bitter thing for a man to bury his children. Jack had opened a side of himself to me after my stroke that I hadn’t seen since he was a very little boy. He had been openly loving and affectionate again without what I suddenly realized was a caution, a reserve. I guess he’d spent his whole life a little bit in fear of me, or of my disapproval, anyway. And once that was gone – once there wasn’t anything I could do or say – that soft side of him came out to me again. I hated for that to be killed, too.
People think I might have been devastated that a Kennedy wasn’t in the White House any more, but that just shows that they don’t understand anything. With Jack gone, why bother? We had done it; we were at the peak and Jack’s martyrdom – for what else was it? – had sealed it. Every ambition I had had for the family I had fulfilled on January 20, 1961. Everything after that wasn’t aimed at achieving anything; it was aimed at what it would do for them to achieve it, if you see the difference. If Bobby could have gotten my opinion and I’d been up to it, I would have told him not to run for president in 1968 or ever. There wasn’t any need, and it wouldn’t do any good. But Bobby probably wouldn’t have listened anyway; that isn’t why he ran for president.
The purity of Jack and Bobby
Here’s a theme for you. My stroke liberated Jack; Jack’s murder liberated Bobby; Bobby’s murder liberated Ted, though people don’t see it. That is the downside, as you call it, to family expectations. The reason I bring it us is that after 1963 Bobby got moved farther and farther toward total rejection of the unfairness of the way things were. I could have told him that no one man can change things much, and that if he did start to change things he wouldn’t last. But Bobby probably wouldn’t have listened. He was awfully strong-headed.
I was awfully proud of what Jack had accomplished because you know it was pretty much against his grain. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if one reason people loved him as a politician was because he didn’t seem like a politician. Well, he wasn’t, not really. He learned the game and he played it as well as anybody could, but without me in the background he never would have gotten too far because he was too pure. And Bobby was even purer.
You don’t think so? Well, think again. Those boys had been to Harvard after exclusive prep schools and life as a prominent public figure’s son. They fit in, in a way I hadn’t been able to because I was the son of saloon keepers. Jack, especially, was an intellectual by temperament. He loved reading and he loved thinking about things you might not credit if I told you. He was like the second son in royalty, you see, and he could afford to be his own man. And then came the war, and his whole life there was all that sickness. It wasn’t the same kind of life I’d had at all. He didn’t need to do those things, because I had done them for him! For him and his brothers and sisters. What would be the point in my educating him into the seamy side of things when I’d made more money than he would ever need?
And Bobby, you know, seriously thought about becoming a priest. There is a famous picture of my family that shows Bobby at age 10 or 12, I think and that picture says it all. If he had been really set on being a priest I wouldn’t have stopped him – you can always use a cardinal in the family! – but I was glad he went a different way. He was a very passionate boy. What he would have done in a celibate society escapes me. Well, I don’t suppose he’d have been able to stand it. Or maybe he would have been able to sublimate it all, I don’t know. But I was still glad he didn’t go into the church. Jack needed him, for one thing.
Thank you. Loads of questions, but I’m tired now. (11:50)