- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 25, 2001

By Laurence Leamer
William Morrow, $35, 882 pages, illus.

Another book on the Kennedys? Surely, sir, you jest. Kennedy book publishing has long ceased being a cottage industry and now resembles a sausage factory conveying endless links of packaged wurst with oftentimes somewhat dubious ingredients. They come in two basic flavors. One is sweet and mild, and that's what the mass, but aging market seems to demand, even now. The other is far more piquant.
Laurence Leamer's version, "The Kennedy Men: 1901-1963, The Laws of the Fathers" isn't quite either, but it requires some getting used to. At over 800 pages, the book takes time in developing its complex flavors. But it is a sausage that definitely has themes. Although the advent and troubled presidency of John F. Kennedy is one such theme, all the Kennedy men and their stories are here too. The book begins with Joseph Kennedy, Sr. Mr. Leamer traces his steps from early adolescence spent on the mean, but instructive, streets of East Boston at the dawn of the last century.
Kennedy, senior, gave his four sons the daughters hardly figured and one was lobotomized, which Mr. Leamer describes in gruesome detail two principle gifts: enough wealth so that none of them would ever have to worry about earning a paycheck, and a taste for politics (not necessarily public service) combined with a rare sense for the jugular. Mixed in with all that was a view of women that can charitably be described as utilitarian. After all, it was Joe, Sr. who openly brought along his paramour Gloria Swanson on a transatlantic voyage with wife Rose in tow.
His conduct as ambassador to the Court of St. James was just as outrageous, not to mention his ability to generate income by importing liquor into America during Prohibition although the senior Kennedy never touched the stuff himself and thus was spared a good man's failing. His stint as a successful head of the Securities and Exchange Commission simply showed Franklin Roosevelt's deft handling of personnel decisions by obeying the dictum it takes a crook to catch a crook.
Mr. Leamer doesn't present the four sons as perfect specimens either, including the long sainted Joseph, Jr., who the family thought was presidential material from the start. Clearly, if Mr. Leamer's story runs true, Joe was not, but his wartime service cannot be faulted. He died doing his job consisting of highly unglamorous submarine patrol which the oldest Kennedy heir hated. As for the youngest, Teddy, his early youthful self-indulgence leads like a thin red line to Chappaquiddick and other more mature follies. With Bobby Kennedy's portrait one comes to the conviction that Fidel Castro has much for which to be thankful. Surely, only Divine Providence kept the Cuban caudillo alive despite the best efforts of the late attorney general in his personal and family quest for vengeance.
Mr. Leamer is at his best, however, detailing the life of Jack, whose assassination ends this Kennedy volume. The details are overwhelming and one huge realization does loom above all others. That is, JFK probably from birth to death never had a well day in his life. His many illnesses are chronicled and analyzed, some of them still undiagnosed which says much about the state of medicine, particularly up to the 1970s. JFK suffered from, inter alia, Addison's disease which nearly killed him plus chronic, unbearable back pain. Any reader of Mr. Leamer's account is left wondering how Jack Kennedy managed to get out of bed every morning. And yet he did, which itself is a profile in courage.
Kennedy's doctors, however, are less inspiring. One among many mixed up a cocktail of drugs of which the president probably did not know its exact ingredients. Certainly, we don't. Then there is Dr. Janet Travell, who had a marvelous sense of press relations, if not medicine, and soon promoted herself as the president's chief physician although she knew only one thing and that was injecting novocaine to relieve JFK's back pain. The press never looked twice. Nor did it dispute the Kennedy claim of vigor, although most reporters had a pretty good idea that the president was not all that he appeared to be.
Mr. Leamer is no prude and he discusses Kennedy's nonstop sex drive (which may inadvertently have been stimulated by the drugs he was receiving in helter-skelter fashion from a bevy of physicians). Certainly JFK was reckless in a way that Bill Clinton couldn't hope to match, but Mr. Leamer is not about to buy everything that, for example, Judith Campbell Exner kept recalling and re-recalling over the years, but nevertheless has been repeated uncritically by other writers on Kennedy ever since.
With all that, is there time in the book for policy making? Well, yes, but there isn't much for the ever-so-earnest wonking class. That's not Mr. Leamer's real purpose, of course. To be sure, there is plenty about Vietnam and Cuba, above all, Cuba, and Soviet relations and something about the civil rights movement, but precious little on economic policy JFK's celebrated tax cut, for example, or trade.
It would be a disservice to Mr. Leamer to point out again that the American Camelot was no Camelot all the more ironic since the "real" Camelot never existed either. Still, Mr. Leamer's warts-and-all approach is a useful corrective to mere hagiography that continues unto this day or the equally cynical rejection of the whole business, both myth and reality. America will have its leaders. Flawed as they may be, they will still lead.
They had better.

Roger Fontaine is a writer in Washington. He served on the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.

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