Thursday, October 22, 2015

Not Exactly A Book Review: The Kennedys: An American Drama by David Horowitz and Peter Collier

I read excerpts of this book in "Playboy" years ago. Years later I would buy a copy and read a hundred or so pages. I was selling books at the time and someone bought it from me. Sales are sales.

A few months ago I read "Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey" by David Horowitz and reviewed it at this blog. I had not previously connected that he was one of the biographers of the twice-started book. I like Horowitz and after reading "Radical Son..." I placed the book back on my reading list.

I like this book. Unlike some people who sympathize with dissident causes, I like the Kennedys. I respect them. I do not idolize them or vote for them but I do not hold them in contempt or wish ill upon them as do certain talk radio hosts and their hostile callers.

Regardless of what one's feelings about the Kennedys, they are interesting people. Horowitz and Collier do not trivialize their subjects nor do they gild any lilies. The chefs make good use of the ingredients provided.

For me, the most interesting character in this saga is not a Kennedy. The most intriguing character is Lem Billings. It is easy to dismiss Billings as a sycophant but that term understates whatever it was he was and whatever it was he did.

From time to time "The Boston Globe" would print obituaries about "a friend of the Kennedys." These would be fairly prominent and successful people whose lives would be summarized by their relationship to the First Family of Massachusetts. I don't recall ever reading an obit about a friend of a Carter or a Ford or even a friend of the Bush Family. The Kennedys might not have invented the entourage but they certainly redefined the idiom.

Billings started out as JFK's best friend in prep school. Odd as this might sound he would make a career and even a life as a "Kennedy friend." He was a confidant at large to the president. After the assassination he made a Barry Sanders maneuver and somehow found himself in Bobby's inner circle. Fast forward and Billings would be hanging out with Bobbie's sons with whom he would drop acid and shoot smack and lecture their peers (for lack of a better term) on the significance of the vocation as a Kennedy friend.

JFK is still my favorite Kennedy and one of my favorite presidents. A sickly kid, it is amazing that he saw adulthood. It's surprising that the Navy accepted him. Because he was so frail, JFK spent a lot of his childhood in bed reading books. He was incredibly well read.

I usually tune out the blah blah blah about declining morals, social media, hook-ups, etc. Didn't anyone have another hobby in the old days? Jackie Kennedy's father bragged about committing adultery just hours into his honeymoon. Marriage actually did slow down JFK. The president was linked to roughly thirty women but the bachelor Kennedy had a steady stream of anonymous waitresses and flight attendants that would make Wilt Chamberlain look like an underachiever. For all of his bad health, JFK's libido never lagged. And he wasn't the only gregarious fellow of his generation either.

One of my favorite JFK stories: As he was courting Jackie, the Auchincloss family were a bit snooty to his clan, whom they regarded as gauche and smelling of new money. At the reception JFK reminded the wedding party of the Auchincloss tradition of smashing their fine crystal in the fire place at the conclusion of the toast. The Kennedys strike back.

Horowitz and Collier load up the bon mots and interesting asides. Times have changed. One cannot imagine an up and coming government attorney getting into a bloody brawl stemming from a touch football game. But that was, if not par for the course in RFK's era, not so out of the ordinary as to be worthy of litigation or investigations.

One is impressed about how fast families can fall. JFK and RFK had great respect for the written word. Bobbie's oldest son would brag that he never read a book from cover to cover. The family's political outlook would follow a similar trajectory. The book was written as Horowitz was undergoing his own philosophical upheaval. The authors don't spend much time on the contrast of JFK's world view and Teddy's perspective.

Pundits like to yammer about the right to left evolution of the family. There is another way of viewing the family's metamorphosis. The Kennedys were outsiders who became insiders. Joe Kennedy, the ambassador, lived with a mentality that the ever-excluded Irish Catholics needed to prove their mettle. They had to demonstrate that they were up to the challenges the establishment might impose upon them.

Sometime circa Camelot the Kennedys became the establishment. The family of anti-Communism and tax cuts and even staunch isolationism became advocates of big government. Why not? They were insiders now. The nation was now Silly Putty in the hands of the elite. Ask what you can do TO your country.

The devolution is sometimes amusing in a car crash spectator sort of way. It is also painful in a car crash spectator sort of way. The decline of the Kennedys dovetails with the decline of our country. This is a book well worth reading.

No comments: