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The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
The immense wealth and security of the Kennedy family in twentieth-century America must be measured against the horrid poverty of their immediate ancestors. For those who lived, worked, and died on the subsistence farms of mid-nineteenth-century Ireland, life itself hung on the annual harvest of a single crop—the potato, which was the basic food for much of the country. A family had to survive an entire year on those pulled up the previous fall. If a new crop failed, as it did in what’s known as the Great Famine, the people starved.
Over a period of years beginning in 1845, owing to a spreading blight, a million tenant farmers and their families, making up much of the country’s rural population, died of both hunger and disease. They were not Ireland’s only loss. More than a million others fled across the Atlantic, through what poet John Boyle O’Reilly would call “the bowl of tears.”
The English government—at its head Queen Victoria, who’d assumed the throne eight years before at the untested age of eighteen—gave little sympathy, less help. In February 1847, it was announced in the House of Commons that fifteen thousand people a day were dying in Ireland. The young monarch “was so moved” by the ongoing tragedy, as a sarcastic Robert Kennedy would remark more than a century later, “that she offered five pounds to the society for Irish relief.” All official assistance issuing from London came, in fact, with a terrible condition: any family accepting it must forfeit its land.
The occasion on which Bobby recalled that history was St. Patrick’s Day 1964, in the Hotel Casey’s ballroom in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The hundreds seated before Bobby, all wearing formal attire, were proud members of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick of Lackawanna County. It was a significant appearance, the first speech Bobby had agreed to give in the shocked, grieving months after the killing of his brother in Dallas. Many listening were soon weeping openly.
What Bobby wanted was for the crowd, so close to him in heritage, to hear him explain his and his lost brother’s commitment to ending another injustice. He wanted to engage them on an emotional level, connecting their shared past to that of another disadvantaged people: the African Americans. He reminded them how the Irish once had poured into America, escaping the heartlessness of their historic British rulers only to be confronted by the New World’s dismissal of their basic humanity.
In Boston, for example, there were NO IRISH NEED APPLY signs everywhere to greet those seeking jobs. “Our forefathers,” he pointed out, “were subject to every discrimination found wherever discrimination is known.” Now, with Congress engaged in landmark legislation aimed at ending segregation in its Southern strongholds, Bobby was raising the well-known specter of Irish servitude and English disregard to enlist support for it.
It was not the Kennedys’ only experience with victimhood. Throughout his life, a very different sort of Irish legacy—one he would never speak of yet would invoke in ways stronger than words—had been carried across the Atlantic by his forebears. This, too, had long been haunting the third son of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. In much of Ireland, tradition had dictated that a farmer, facing retirement, would divide his land among his sons. In County Wexford, on Ireland’s southeast coast, where the economy was better off, such rural inheritance was handled differently. There, the father kept his farm intact, awarding it when the time came to the son born first. It was this rule of primogeniture, carried on by Joseph Kennedy—already two generations settled in America—in this country that would leave its invisible stain on the young Robert. He was the Irish son who would not get the land.
Bobby’s great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy, a third son himself, had arrived in Boston’s North End in 1848. In this city the Kennedys stayed and prospered until 1927 when Patrick’s grandson Joseph P. Kennedy moved his young family to New York. Again, the reasons had to do with rejection, though now upon a rarefied level.
Joe Kennedy was, by almost every measure, an American success story. A graduate of the prestigious Boston Latin School, he’d gone on to Harvard, class of 1912, where he majored in economics. At age twenty-five, having maneuvered his way to control of a bank, one of whose major shareholders was his father, it was his boast that he was the youngest bank president in the country. Socially, he advanced rapidly amid the Boston Irish elite, marrying the daughter of Boston’s mayor, a colorful pol known as John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. From there, Joe proceeded to new heights, reaching past Boston, wheeling and dealing his way in Wall Street, Hollywood, and beyond. Yet there was a Gatsby quality to him—his rise so meteoric—that his success always carried in equal measure awe and suspicion.
What separated Joe Kennedy from the other Irish around him were the high ambitions deep inside him, ones that couldn’t be satisfied by the usual scoreboard. He saw his destiny as grander than a law degree allowing him to put “Esq.” after his name, with an income just enough to secure a cottage on the Cape. “The castle or the outhouse,” he declared, “nothing in between.” What drove him in those early climbing years was what he was prevented from achieving—namely, social acceptance by the gatekeepers of the old New England order.
The doors shut to the Kennedy family had to do with their very name—such an obvious giveaway—and the background it proclaimed. Joe’s children—smart, lively, prosperous, attractive, well-schooled—were no different in their own eyes from their Protestant neighbors. They suffered from the basic handicap of their birth. Even if the rejections they faced were not those of employment opportunities slammed in the face of Irish immigrants seeking jobs, the reason was the same. The social gates closed to them were those through which the well-off if newly rich Kennedys believed they had a right to pass. It was not that they’d been given less in the new country; they wanted more.
So it was, in 1927, that the Kennedy family left Boston to settle eventually in leafy, moneyed Bronxville, a short drive from Manhattan. The move south from Massachusetts was hardly of the sort to earn sympathy from onlookers. The travails of the lace-curtain Irish clearly lacked the fearful drama of the exodus across the ocean. But that didn’t stop the Kennedys from their refrain. Joe Kennedy and his children would, for the rest of their lives, continue to recount the saga of being forced from their hometown to seek social refuge elsewhere, even if sympathy from listeners was in short supply. As a friendly skeptic, a fellow Irish American, later would put it, Joseph Kennedy was the only person driven out of Boston “in his own railway car.”
“Yes, but it was symbolic,” his son Robert would insist until the end of his life. “The business establishment, the clubs, the golf course—at least that was what I was told at a very young age. Both my parents felt very strongly about the discrimination.” For her part, Rose could rarely bring herself to such an admission. She’d claimed they’d made the move down to New York simply due to her husband’s business. But even she would ask in dismay why the “better people” of Boston had closed their doors to them.
It was young Bobby who took the Kennedy self-banishment from Boston—lasting a dozen years, beginning when he was five—to heart. For him, it had the effect of creating a continuum, linking him to blood feelings stirred by stories of the Great Famine and the British indifference to his own family’s latter-day exile. It made him more Irish.
The year following the Kennedy family’s arrival in Bronxville was a presidential election year, bringing with it a fresh episode of rejection to bind together America’s Irish Catholics in their apartness.
The 1928 Republican nominee for the White House was Herbert Hoover, whose name is known to us because he won. His Democratic opponent was Al Smith, a figure often and unfairly lost to history. Born into an Irish Italian family living under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, Smith had been first a newsboy, then toiling long hours at the Fulton Street Fish Market. From there, rising steadily in accomplishments and status—he joined the Tammany Hall political machine, which enabled him to pass through a number of worthy positions, winding up as a four-time governor of New York. He was a city kid made good.
Yet the “Al Smith legacy” is the relevant story here. It’s the one I grew up with, exactly as the Kennedy brothers and sisters had earlier. Nominated to head the Democratic ticket, Smith lost to Hoover in 1928, failing even to carry his home state of New York. Why was he beaten? Whatever the fuller, more complicated reasons, we Catholics all knew the answer: because he was one of us.
Others might say differently—that 1928 was still a time of roaring prosperity—and that his Republican rival, Herbert Hoover, had made for himself a first-rate reputation as an economic manager, earning praise for his distribution of U.S. food aid to post–World War I Europe.
Such an argument didn’t carry water with us, not enough to displace the often taught belief that anti-Catholic sentiment was widespread enough in pre–World War II America to doom Smith’s chances. In short, one reason for Smith’s defeat was handed down as if part of the catechism. My mother, born Mary Theresa Shields, of whose five sons I was the second oldest, knew exactly what she believed. As, I’m quite sure, did the pious Rose Kennedy, even if her husband had voted for Hoover.
Being Irish Catholic has always meant a tribal as well as a religious loyalty. Back in Ireland, under British rule, it was “them” versus “us.” In America, where it meant to stand in strength against the Protestant majority, it required loyalty to the clan as well as to the faith. Whatever their social ambitions and desire for higher acceptance, the ingrained habits of the Kennedys, as well as their fealty to their shared traditions and rituals, put being Catholic and Irish at its center. Even Jack, the least churchy, would go in and light a candle for his older brother or kneel—a physically painful act for him—at the gravesite of a beloved lost sister or for one of his two lost children.
Yet it wasn’t the banishment from Boston alone that forged in the young Bobby such a lasting identification with the way his co-religionists had been overlooked and rejected. There was also a permanent scar left on him by his relationship with his father, which carried a personal experience of rejection. He yearned for Joe’s attention and dreaded his disapproval, much as a faithful subject does with a ruler.
Bobby’s childhood, already difficult, forced upon him the continual challenge of holding his own amid the pack. Once he raced so hard to get to dinner on time, in desperate fear of the senior Kennedy’s wrath, that he smashed his head into a glass wall he thought might prove a shortcut. It left him bleeding. “I was very awkward,” he’d later admit. “I dropped things and fell down all the time.” Once, not yet having learned to swim, he jumped from a boat into Nantucket Sound to force himself to. That at least caught brother Jack’s attention: “It showed either a lot of guts or no sense at all.”
But in the way that families arrange themselves, Bobby, the odd child out, endeared himself to his mother and soon became her favorite. A devout Catholic, she took her third boy, overlooked by his father, to her heart, openly calling him her “pet.” Responding to the emotional space she made for him, he reciprocated by fully accepting Rose Kennedy’s devotion to the Church as his own. He could see that it was a way of making her happy. He would tag along with her to daily mass, not just out of shared piety but also to clearly demonstrate his concern for her—something his brothers decidedly did not. He was “thoughtful and considerate,” his mother saw. “And probably the most religious of my sons.” Also, others would discover, the least assimilated.
The most Irish of the Kennedy children, and always attached to exactly what that meant, it wouldn’t be wrong to say he was, despite being a third-generation American, the least changed from the old country.
Bobby adored his older brothers, even if his desire for their company was one-sided. Joe Jr. and Jack were a world to themselves and kid brothers can, of course, famously be nuisances. At night from his room upstairs, hearing them and envying their closeness, he’d long to be part of them, even when the noise was that of a knockdown fight. It was also about the age gap that lay between them, not to mention the presence in between of sisters Rose Marie (nicknamed “Rosemary”), Kathleen, Eunice, and Pat.
As his older brothers matured and were invited to join their parents for political discussions at dinner, Bobby inevitably was marooned with younger sister Jean and later Teddy, the very youngest, at the “little kids’ table.” “He longed to explore the world with Dad,” Jean has written, “and to engage in debate with Joe and Jack. But when he was a toddler the older boys were already headed into their teenage years.”
Bobby, as we’ve seen, was a decade younger than Joe, eight years behind Jack. By the time he was old enough to imagine being at least tolerated as their companion, his big brothers were already off to boarding school. Thus, they seemed to keep widening their lead on him. According to Jean: “Bobby strove to be as near as possible to Joe and Jack every chance he got, and to be respected by them. At dinner time at the kids’ table off to the side, Bobby strained his ear to their direction and longed to be their equal.” Rose Kennedy, meanwhile, worried at the effect on Bobby of having his adored, if negligent, brothers gone nine months of the year.
Jean remembered how Bobby spent many a Hyannis Port summer playing with local Cape Cod pals of his own. They were the sons of a family maid. “Only looking back,” she added, “does it occur to me how uncommon it was during that time in American history for children of different races to play together.”
One could argue, of course, that I’m overdoing this emphasis on birth order and favorites. But anyone who’s ever experienced the reality of rivalry for parents’ affections while growing up will understand. I know very well that my own four brothers continue to have their own individual perceptions and convictions about the way it played out in our house. I sensed from the beginning I had my mom’s love without effort, it was Dad’s I felt I had to earn. Loving him, and I clearly did, wasn’t enough to accomplish the job. I had to work for it.
Whatever else they were, the Kennedys were such a family, with each member contending for his or her space. Here, as elsewhere, life was unfair. While Bobby could comfort himself with his mother’s love, Jack didn’t have the same experience of Rose’s maternal affection.
Unlike Bobby, Jack kept small regard for his mother. Looking back, he was cold in his dismissal of her, once saying she was, in his upbringing, “a nothing.” She “never really loved him,” Jacqueline Kennedy told author Theodore White a week after Dallas. “She didn’t love him,” she repeated for emphasis. Meanwhile, he kept a guarded distance from his father. Sick much of the time, and relying on books for escape, Jack would discover his own world. “History made him what he was,” his widow believed. “This little boy in bed, so much of the time . . . reading history.” As his sister Jean would put it, he was “funny and original, charting his own path regardless of what others thought.” Thus, he was able to make a refuge for himself, away from family and doctors.
Bobby, we know, wasn’t his brother. He found comfort in Rose’s consoling embrace. When it came to his father, he had to keep making his case. It explains his emerging devotion to justice, if only for survival. To be unfavored, as Bobby was, forces you to put forth your claim based on what’s right. Early on, his family would often hear him speak of what was “fair” and “not fair.” Here he was, with all his family advantages, not yet a teenager, learning the language of the oppressed.
More than his brothers, Bobby clung to the black-and-white strictness of his church’s moral order. For the Kennedys—and, a generation later, for me—Catholic instruction, certainly at the catechism level, was blunt when it came to moral teaching. A page in our religion textbooks—which we opened each day in our first-grade class at Maternity BVM—showed three milk bottles side by side. The white one, we were instructed, represented a person’s soul in the “state of grace,” that is, without sin. The darker bottle replicated a soul that had committed venial, or pardonable, sins. The third bottle was black, indicating mortal sin, which, if not cleansed through the sacrament of confession, meant you were going to hell.
This was Bobby’s world. He was the one who took every bit of this to heart. When the time came, he eagerly became an altar boy. He would now be up there with the priest on Sunday morning, the eyes of the communicants on him and his fellow celebrants. These would be the first hours of his life he would be onstage, in this case a holy place. He was sharing his faith; though his body was small, his soul was now large.
His brothers and sisters would hear him in his room practicing his Latin: Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. “I shall go unto the altar of God, the God who gives joy to my youth.” This was the liturgy of the centuries, spoken in the ancient language of the early Roman Church. It carried with it the aroma of incense and the judgment of the divine. It was hierarchical and mysterious, and it was meant to be as strict in its observance as in its devotion.
Bobby loved it.