Writer David Nasaw discusses the turbulent life of Joseph P. Kennedy
From his role as a father to powerful politicians to his job as a movie industry mogul, Nasaw says that 'unlike other outsiders who fight to get inside... once [Kennedy] gets inside, he refuses to play by the rules.'
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I undertook it because I saw very quickly that I could use the life of Joseph Kennedy to tell a larger story about the twentieth century. Here's a man who works in shipbuilding during World War I and then is a big stock trader during the '20s boom and goes to the Hollywood as a studio when the silents transitioned to talkies, and then is a Roosevelt confidant, head of the Maritime Commission, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and ambassador to Great Britain.
Q: This is all especially remarkable considering that he was an Irish Catholic. Amazingly, that wasn't even a plus in Boston itself during his early years. How did that play out?
He was an Irish Catholic from East Boston who learned when he got out of Harvard that he was an outsider. He'd have to fight and claw his way inside, and he could trust no one along the way except family members and maybe a couple other Irish Catholics.
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Fifty to 60 to 70 years ago, America was more divided than today. It was divided into ethic and religious tribes. Every group had its place in this pecking order. He lived in that world, and he had to find his way in it.
Q: And transcend it?
Yeah! The reason why he's such a great character to write about, unlike other outsiders who fight to get inside, is that once he gets inside, he refuses to play by the rules.
He has such self-confidence that he's convinced he's always the smartest guy in the room, and he's not going to follow what anyone else says, not even Roosevelt.
As a result, he ends up on the outside again.
Q: What did you make of his transition that landed him in positions of power in government in the first place?
While this country has been through bad times over the last couple of years, I don't think we're even close to understanding the fears that people had during the Great Depression.
They were not simply fears that the economy was not going to get better. Among a large part of the population, there was a real concern that if the Depression was not cured, this country would go the way of Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union. People in need would abandon capitalism and abandon democracy.
Kennedy was motivated by these fears to support Roosevelt. This is a remarkable part of he story: To become the SEC chairman and, to save capitalism, he realized he had to rein in the Wall Street bankers and traders. He outlawed the practices he'd use to make his millions.
Q: What about his still-controversial work as the American ambassador to Great Britain and his opposition to involvement in World War II?
He made two outrageous mistakes.
He believed that American support of the British was going to destroy the economy and would lead to some form of regulated economy and dictatorship. He couldn't imagine the British were going to win the war.