The overdue end of the Kennedy myth
I suspect that I was not alone among living Americans under the age of 70 in rejoicing at the defeat of Joe Kennedy III in Tuesday's Massachusetts Democratic Senate primary. This was not because of "the issues." I know almost nothing about Kennedy's political views, and even less about those of his opponent, Sen. Ed Markey.
I jumped for joy upon hearing of this result, which will not meaningfully affect the composition of the Senate, for the same reason that 45 percent of the primary electorate voted for Kennedy: because of his last name.
No exit polling is available to give an age breakdown, but it would be astonishing if support for the two candidates were not notably divided along generational lines. The Kennedy mystique is mysterious to people my age; to younger voters it must be well-nigh incomprehensible.
What exactly is the legacy of our 35th president? It certainly looks very thin these days. At the remove of more than half a century it should be possible to say that John F. Kennedy was a charlatan whose good looks and rhetoric did not paper over his failings, a bungler during the Cold War who bears far more responsibility than his eminent successor for our failure in Vietnam. His betrayal of President Ngo Dinh Diem is among the most shameful incidents in our foreign policy in the post-war era. Most of the credit he is afforded by conventional historians as an improver of American race relations belongs rightly to his vice president; it is the Southerner Lyndon Johnson who deserves to be remembered as the politician who redeemed the Democratic Party for what had been its shameful legacy of racism. So far from signaling the possibility of full Catholic participation in our civic life, Kennedy ensured, with his speech to the Baptist ministers in Houston, that his coreligionists would never again trouble themselves about what the popes teach.
Most confusing of all is the attitude of American liberals toward Kennedy, especially in the post-MeToo era.
Not without reason did Ira Stoll publish a revisionist biography of the president some years ago entitled JFK, Conservative. Kennedy was a tax cutter whose brother antagonized organized labor, the originator of the triangulation strategy that defined the party long before Bill Clinton entered the White House. His presidency was the beginning of the end of the all-too-brief post-war consensus on the mixed economy, a process of destruction thankfully, albeit briefly, arrested by both of the men who followed him in office.
The Camelot myth, which papers over an uninspiring record in office and years of serial adultery and sexual harassment, including of White House employees. (Among other things, it has never made sense on its own terms: the musical of the same name adapted from The Once and Future King is the story of a uxorious monarch who is betrayed by his own wife and best friend.) Practically the only good thing that can be said about Kennedy's relations with women is that as far as I am aware he never got away with driving off a bridge while drunk and killing one, unlike his esteemed brother Ted, who never found a cause (chief among them the unborn) that he was unwilling to betray or a sin of which he could not absolve himself with appeals to the deaths of his siblings.
What has any of this got to do with their great-nephew? In the spirit of candor I should admit that in the first draft of this column I wrote that the only good thing Patrick Kennedy had done during his long and mostly undistinguished career representing a safe Rhode Island seat in the House of Representatives was to suggest that marijuana should not be legalized for recreational purposes. Then I realized that I was thinking of the wrong politician, that Patrick, son of Ted, grandson of Joseph and great-grandson of another Patrick, is not the same person as the somewhat younger Joseph, son of Joseph, grandson of Robert, and also grandson and great-grandson of the aforementioned Joseph and Patrick respectively. Joe III, as I now think of him, also held a reliably Democratic New England House seat, albeit in his native Massachusetts.
The fact that I nearly committed this error to print makes my point more effectively than any intentional argument could. Joe Kennedy has as much business in the United States Senate as Tiffany Trump, whom I hope I have not just insulted.