No family still active in public life has been the subject of more biographical interest than the Kennedys. Their literary charisma is so great, in fact, that no Kennedy life seems unexamined and no publishing season passes without a Kennedy bestseller. Now comes "The Kennedys," a 700-page, five-generation history written by New York Newsday reporter Thomas Maier. The inevitable question arises: Why is this Kennedy book different from all the rest?
Maier has a ready answer. He has subtitled his book, "America's Emerald Kings" and billed it as the story of "the ultimate Irish-Catholic family." This is a presumptuous claim that no author should be expected to fulfill, but Maier tries anyway, repeating the challenge in his text: "Since their arrival in this land, the Kennedys have been exemplars of the Irish-Catholic experience in America."
One could argue exactly the reverse. Most Kennedy biographers have been impressed by the way the family did not so much exemplify as transcend their ethnic beginnings. "Camelot," for example, which was the Kennedys' self-named moment in the American sun, was an English court, and JFK was himself a noted Anglophile. Maier acknowledges these facts but treats them as extraneous to the story he wants to tell.
Even more problematic for Maier's thesis is the fact that Joseph P. Kennedy, "the founding father" of the Kennedy epic, turned his back on Irish Boston, where his father, P.J. Kennedy, had been a typical ethnic pol. He moved the family seats to waspy Hyannisport, Mass., and Palm Beach, Fla., directing its aspirations toward such un-Irish horizons as Hollywood, London and Washington. In doing so, he began the process of launching one of the most remarkable (and decidedly un-ethnic) political careers in American history.
Maier's attention to Irish and Catholic themes of this saga is also not original. Doris Kearns Goodwin and other serious Kennedy biographers have paid attention to these elements. The question Maier's book raises is just how much attention is appropriate.
No other biographer has begun a Kennedy narrative, for example, with 34 pages of social history about Ireland, County Wexford and Dunganstown, where the Kennedys' remote ancestors lived. Part of the reason is that we know virtually nothing about these ancestors and only a handful of facts about the Kennedy who came to America in 1848. Nor do we know much about his American son, even though P.J. Kennedy was a powerful Boston politician and Massachusetts legislator whose "story" takes us to page 50 in Maier's text.
The problem with this material is not that it lacks interest but that it is not particularly connected to the individuals who are the proper subject of the text. The material that is relevant could be summarized in five pages rather than 50. Maier seems to have been more intent on creating a big book with an "original" selling point rather than on meeting this basic authorial obligation. As a result, his claim that he adds a new dimension to the Kennedy story remains largely unfulfilled, despite his efforts.
This problem is dramatized at the end of the introductory pages, when Maier recounts his interview with a Kennedy cousin, Mary Kennedy Ryan, in Ireland. P.J. Kennedy had visited Ryan's family on one occasion and corresponded with them until his death in 1929. But the account of his interview ends with Ryan's reminiscence of what followed P.J.'s demise: "We sat in front of the fire and read [the letters] and then we burned them one at a time." In other words, we know nothing about this relationship but secondhand opinions 70 years removed.
Every writer of biographies mourns the moments and the material he or she has unearthed that cannot be included in the work. A biography is not an archive; it is a selective rendering of the facts that is to be judged on how it shapes the story in a way that helps us to understand a life. Large swaths of Maier's hefty text contribute nothing to this understanding. And that is not the end of the problem, for what goes into a text necessarily keeps other material out. Thus Mary Ryan is mentioned or discussed on fully 13 pages, even though she met an American Kennedy on only three occasions -- one of them ceremonial -- over a 30-year period and only for a couple of hours at that. In contrast to his extensive treatment of Mary Ryan, Maier pays little or no attention to far more significant figures: Marilyn Monroe (whom he mentions on two pages only in passing and without indicating her affairs with John and Robert Kennedy), Sam Giancana (one page) and Mary Jo Kopechne (one page).
Why does Sen. Joseph McCarthy merit attention on 19 pages while Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa -- about whose relationship with Bobby Kennedy whole books have been written -- merits no mention at all? The answer is the same for all of these examples: McCarthy was Irish Catholic and the others were not.
Maier's prose sometimes descends to the tabloid, as when he refers to "McCarthy's anti-Red jihad," but a more serious problem is that his journalistic background has not prepared him to penetrate the Kennedy facade to uncover the drama underneath, which is a biographer's primary task. Thus he pads his narrative with discussions of McCarthy's support among Irish Catholics, his adversaries among non-Catholics and the Kennedys' support for him because he was an Irish Catholic. But how does this illuminate the relationship between Bobby Kennedy, the famous liberal, and McCarthy, the famous anti-liberal, or the fact that brother Jack had a more distanced and nuanced attitude toward the senator's crusade than either his brother or father? It doesn't, because the answers to these questions lie in the characters of the individuals, not in their Catholicism. Character is the canvas on which the biographer builds his edifice; it is the key to understanding who the Kennedys were and how they triumphed and failed. But it is precisely in the portrayal of character that Maier's book is lacking.
This can be seen in his obtuse efforts to deal with the Kennedys' religion, which he treats in the same way he treats their ethnicity -- as though it were the explanation rather than the problem. Like many of his digressions, the mini-essays on Catholicism add helpful background information but don't lead the reader to any core insights about the Kennedys themselves. Maier's descriptions of the lives and careers of Cardinals O'Connell and Spellman, for example, show these prelates to be worldly-wise and even corrupt while documenting how they aided Joseph Kennedy in the pursuit of his ambitions. But they remain useful in the way a research file is useful rather than because they add to our understanding of Kennedy or his Catholicism: "[Joseph] Kennedy understood the faults and weaknesses of men such as Spellman and O'Connell, but his fidelity to the church of his forefathers remained unquestioned." I haven't the foggiest idea what that sentence means, and neither does Maier.
Unfortunately this is not an aberration but a rule in this unsatisfying text. Reading Maier is worse than looking through the wrong end of a telescope. He is constantly directing the reader's attention to a corner of the picture and often merely to the frame itself. For example, when Maier's narrative approaches the assassination it does so, inevitably, from the Catholic angle: "Since his election to the American presidency, the city of Dallas's hatred for Kennedy remained thick and oppressive.... Throughout the 1960 campaign, Dallas was the epicenter of hate, the home of numerous Catholic bigots."
But "Dallas" did not hate or kill Kennedy, and there is no Catholic angle to his assassination. Moreover, the author himself tells us so: "The Warren report noted, in a small aside, that a Dallas police detective asked Lee Harvey Oswald whether some form of anti-Catholicism might be in play in his actions. Oswald denied any animus toward Catholics." So why mention it at all?
In concluding his reflections on these matters, Maier cannot refrain from taking another shot at the ethnic theme: "Forty years after his death, that achievement -- a member of a minority group elected to the White House -- has yet to be matched." Once again, he is wrong. It is true that Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Jew, did not technically make it to the White House, although his ticket received a majority of the popular vote. But Ronald Reagan, an Irish American, did.