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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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The second mistake was that he believed Hitler was a reasonable statesman. Kennedy still believed you could make a deal with Hitler, and he believed he could do it.

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This was about his fear of war and the cataclysm it would bring – not just the lives lost of a generation of young men, but the destruction of the economy and of representative democracy. He thought this was coming.
Q: How did he manage to have such extraordinary children?
Every child got this sense from him that "I've struggled, I worked hard and I struggled for you. I made enough money so you each have million-dollar trust funds. I expect each of you to do something with your lives – not to make money, but in public service."

It's an anomaly, because strong fathers don't necessarily yield strong sons. But all of these kids were remarkable, all independent-minded.

He's a incredible father, there's no doubt about that.
Q: Was there a dark side to the drive he instilled in them, which seemed to lead to adultery and other problems?
A: When I read the histories and look at them, I think that's rather overblown.

He had nine children; one was [mentally disabled]. In the other eight, there were bad marriages and good marriages.

Yeah, there was womanizing and there were troubles, but I don't know if it's so remarkably out of the ordinary. The trouble that falls on this family, the disasters, come from the outside.
Q: This man reaches incredible glories, loses child after child and ended up a crippled invalid who's helpless as his world falls apart. Do you see him as a tragic figure?
I think I do. But I don't know whether it's a Shakespearean or a Greek tragedy, if it's his own lofty ambitions or the fates that do him in.

Here's a man who lives for his children and who triumphs when they triumph. To lose four of them, five if you count Rosemary [who was mentally disabled and underwent a disastrous lobotomy], that's tragedy.

Then he has an estrangement from the Catholic church when the hierarchy does not support Jack in his bid for the presidency. That was a betrayal of the first order.

And then the stroke.

If this was fiction, nobody would believe this strong, articulate, debonair man, who dressed immaculately, would spend the last eight of years of his life not only unable to communicate, but a crippled monster of a man, frightening his grandchildren.
Q: What about his triumphs?
When his son is finally elected, it's a bittersweet election because so many white Anglo-Saxon Protestants voted against him, but he was elected.

How could a man not savor the fact that he had sons as president and as attorney general and Teddy, after some tough times, was putting his life together? And all the daughters seemed happily married?

He had lived a full life. There were certainly triumphs.
Q: Do you like him?
There's no easy answer to that. There are things I like about him, and there are things I don't like about him.

In the end, I'm thankful that he's so fascinating. I spent six years with the guy, and I was never bored for a minute.

He was unpredictable, quirky and colorful, with a great use of language and sense of humor. That kept me going, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.


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