While this is a work of political and family history, as any Kennedy book must be, it is best described as an extended character study of Joseph Kennedy and his sons, Joseph Jr., John, Robert, and Edward. It is not a celebration of triumphs or an undraping of frailties but instead offers much of both in an evenhanded narrative of courage, meanness, ambition, hypocrisy, patriotism, anti-Semitism, duty, and wantonness. Few tales can be more familiar, yet the writing is always tight and often graceful. How the men of this family lived their lives both publicly and privately is the real subject of this book, even as the cinema of Leamer's plot projects scenes featuring the likes of Roosevelt, King, Monroe, Castro, and Nixon. Although Leamer aims primarily at a general audience, scholars will take note of his considerable primary research, in printed and recorded material, and dozens of his own interviews. Worthy of being placed on the same shelf with Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, this book follows Leamer's The Kennedy Women and precedes a planned second volume. For all libraries.( Library Journal Review)
Use these questions to facilitate a lively discussion. Choose the questions that you think are most appropriate to your group and the book you've read, and feel free to modify them any way you wish.
1. For the person who chose this book: What made you want to read it? What made you suggest it to the group for discussion? Did it live up to your expectations? Why or why not?
2. What did you know about the subject prior to reading this book? Did you learn anything new about this person? If you knew of the subject before, did anything you read change your opinion?
3. What is the subject's most admirable quality? Is this someone you would want to know or have known?
4. What did you find to be the most interesting events in this book? What, if anything, surprised you?
5. If this person impacted history, discuss what may have been different without his or her presence.
6. What did you learn about the time period in which the book is set that you did not previously know? Discuss the time period in history that each person in the group enjoys reading about most, and why.
7. Has reading this book inspired you to do further research on the subject and the time period discussed?
8. Compare this book to others your group has read. Is it similar to any of them? Did you like it more or less than other books you've read? What do you think will be your lasting impression of the book as a whole? How about the subject specifically?
9. What did you like or dislike about the book that hasn't been discussed already? Were you glad you read this book? Would you recommend it to a friend? Do you want to read more works by this author or more about the book's subject?
The Kennedy Men is an invaluable piece of history. Laurence Leamer has managed to pull back the shroud of secrecy behind which the Kennedy family has so long lived. The depth of detail and the fairness of reporting makes this a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand the Kennedy mystique. A word of caution: if you are an admirer of the Kennedy legend, you may be in for a rude awakening. The overwhelming tragedy that befell President Kennedy has left some of us perpetually viewing his life through rose-colored glasses. The image that emerges from the pages of this book is of a human being with flaws like the rest of us who also managed to become an accomplished politician.
Joseph Kennedy was judged with more dispassionate honesty than his famous sons were. Some of the things in this book are not startling revelations -- the shady beginnings of the family fortune, the numerous affairs, and his less than tactful turn as an ambassador to the court of Saint James. There are tidbits that help to explain his behavior. The fact that Rose was so unimpressed with sex that Joe threatened to “tell the priest on you,” combined with the prevailing attitude of the time that wives would suffer from nervous prostration if they had sex more than once a month, helps shed light on his constant philandering.
Joe Junior was the golden child to whom everything came easily. It is common knowledge that he volunteered for his suicide mission even though his tour was up because he felt he had to bring back a better medal than his brother Jack had earned. It is poignantly eerie to learn that Joe had told another officer that he wished he could back out of the mission but felt there was no way to do so honorably. The infamous Kennedy competitive streak then claimed its first victim.
JFK was a “mucker”, the name given to the bunch he ran with at Harvard. His bad back and Addison’s disease are well known, but the fact that he had so many inexplicable illnesses that disappeared as quickly as they appeared is new information. The infamous affairs were conducted in a much more indiscreet manner than most people knew. His behavior grew more restless the longer he was in office, perhaps due to the immense pain he endured or the ever-increasing shots of amphetamines he got from “Dr. Feelgood.” The injections continued despite his other physician’s dire warnings, and even his beloved brother Bobby entreated him to stop. It was known even then that such shots had side effects of a feeling of omnipotence, which calls into to question the way that all of his decisions were made.
Robert Kennedy has always been “ruthless Robert” to his detractors. This book reveals that his enemies were not far from the truth. Bobby was an obsessive personality, and his tenacious preoccupation with eliminating Castro by any means possible would be frightening on its own. When combined with his brother the President’s subsequent murder, it becomes nauseatingly suggestive of the consequences of blind determination. It is intriguing to ponder whether what Bobby’s friends assert is true: that he was a man changed by the immense tragedy on that infamous day in November. Perhaps Leamer will cover that in a subsequent book that would be an interesting and poignant read as well.
Finally, we come to Edward Kennedy, Teddy to most of us. His reputation has often had a whiff of scandal about it. In that, he is more like the progenitor Joseph Kennedy.
Like many who were not born when President Kennedy was assassinated, I have been guilty of idealizing him. I overlooked his faults of womanizing (and accompanying chauvinism) as well as his opponents’ criticisms that the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis were due in part to his inexperience and mishandling of the situations. Leamer has forced me to look with an unblinking gaze at the whole picture. Seeing JFK's moral failings and character flaws does not obliterate the other picture that this book paints. Toward the end, he was maturing into a better president. We will never know what President Kennedy could have done for the betterment of our nation. Yes, you will finish this book with a different view of our thirty-sixth president. Yet his legacy of what might have been will remain intact forever.
© 2003 by Camden Alexander for Curled Up With a Good Book