Joe Kennedy was no angel but neither was he a bootlegger

ANY student of the Kennedy dynasty knows all about the father figure, Joe Kennedy, who shaped and warped the lives of his children through his determination to live vicariously through them and ensure that each should fulfill his ambitions.

This was the man who became US Ambassador at the Court of St James and, while there, provided his masters with consistently rotten advice. That rotten advice was rooted in his incapacity to understand Hitler’s regime, that incapacity influenced, up to a point, by some covert admiration for the Nazis. This was the man who subjected his emotionally troubled daughter to a lobotomy which institutionalised her for the rest of her life.

This was the man who, while cosying up to the Catholic hierarchy, was at the same time flagrantly unfaithful to his marriage vows with (among others) film star Gloria Swanson. (His wife, according to some biographers, had the most cruel revenge when he was rendered speechless by a stroke in later life. That stroke allowed her to spend his money on constant travel and talk to him in ways he would never have tolerated when in the whole of his health.)

This, finally, was the man who built the legendary Kennedy wealth through rum-running during Prohibition. Bootlegging put him arm-in-arm with the Mafia which grew powerful as a result of Prohibition.

No argument about those details, right? Wrong, according to a new history of Prohibition, written by former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent, who points out that in the ten years directly after the Repeal of Prohibition, the much mistrusted Joe Kennedy was proposed for three federal positions considered to be so important as to require Senate confirmation. The posts were Chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission, Chairman of the US Maritime Commission and Ambassador to Great Britain. All required him to undergo the detailed process of challenge which — in recent years — has sunk several aspirants to high office when it revealed that they had tax issues or had employed illegal aliens as nannies. Yet Joe Kennedy came through the same process without being nailed as a bootlegger.

Now, let’s be clear. Opponents didn’t want Kennedy to get any of these three posts — and they were legion and, as proven by history, correct, at least in relation to the position at the Court of St James. They had money and motivation.

Yet the state records do not reveal anything which suggests Kennedy’s accepted bootlegging past was put to him as an accusation. At all. Ever.

Just as significant is the fact that the major national newspapers of the time, which were, of course, immeasurably more powerful than newspapers are today, never said a dickie bird about the bootlegging matter.

Neither the Senate nor the media at the time were being positive towards Kennedy. They raised nasty issues about possible stock manipulation and other negatives.

“But about involvement in the illegal liquor trade, there was nothing at all,” Okrent points out. “With Prohibition fresh in the national mind, when a hint of illegal behaviour would have been dearly prized by the president’s enemies or Kennedy’s own, there wasn’t even a whisper.”

Curious, that. Then some decades passed, and, in the 1950s, Kennedy came up for consideration for a federal post by President Eisenhower. The FBI were invited to comb through all aspects of his private, public and commercial life. Not all of what the FBI found was positive towards Kennedy, but not even the most motivated detractors told FBI officers about him having built his business empire on rum-running during the years of Prohibition.

Curiouser and Curiouser.

The first mention on record comes ten years later, when a journalist, writing about John F. Kennedy’s candidacy, said that in those parts of the country which were still anti-alcohol, opponents of JFK had taken to referring to his father as “a rich bootlegger.” The older Kennedy clearly didn’t challenge the reference, and it can be inferred that the reason was fear of giving it wider currency than it already had.

Kennedy was as far as possible kept out of the limelight during the Presidential election campaign, because he was generally regarded as a floridly bad egg with the potential to wreck his son’s candidacy.

“A quiet period followed,” according to Okrent, “and then the inference started showing up again after the 1964 publication of the Warren Commission report. Supporters of the theory that John F. Kennedy was murdered by the Mafia suggested that the assassination had something to do with the aged resentments of mobster Sam Giancana.”

After that, all bets were off. Self-confessed Mafia mobsters came out of the woodwork, claiming to have supplied Kennedy with liquor or bought it from him. Or, if they hadn’t any direct connection, they got themselves headlines, mostly when publicising autobiographical books, by saying that they had known of some other mobster who had supplied or been supplied by Kennedy. By the 1990s, the allegations had become fact and popped up in every feature or book about the Kennedys. They popped up in odder places, too. When Kennedy’s grandson was about to be tried for rape, several jurors disqualified themselves by confidently stating that the Kennedy money was earned by law-breaking during Prohibition.

Their confidence was based on the spontaneous growth of unevidenced assertions around Joe Kennedy’s past. The fact that the assertions grew like mint or ivy was partly due to the general view of him as a bad man, and it is understandable that members of the general public, hearing recurring references to Kennedy’s bootlegging over a period of time, would believe them to be true and pass them on as fact.

It is less understandable and completely unacceptable that journalists would, when encountering what one of them called “the remarkable lack of documentation in government files” of Kennedy’s rum-running, would not ask themselves the legitimate question “Is it possible that the absence of documentation indicates that Kennedy wasn’t a bootlegger?” None of the journalists asked that question. Instead, they took second and third-hand accounts from people whose word was dodgy at the best of times. One of them developed a particularly sophisticated way to get around the problem.

“The sheer magnitude of the recollections,” he wrote, “is more important than the veracity of the individual stories.”

Well, no, it isn’t. What this and other journalists revealed was that each of them was suffering from “theory-induced blindness.” Theory-induced blindness is what happens when any of us buys into a belief about the way the world works with so much enthusiasm we stop observing how it actually works.

Does it matter that a man long dead has been irrevocably traduced, when he was no angel in any other area of his life? Yes, it does. Any time journalists, paid or unpaid, set out to prove their own prejudices rather than find the truth, it damages all of us.

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