- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

It has been 40 years since that day in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated by a gunman.During that time, there has been almost a cottage industry of books written on the trials of the Kennedy family.When author Thomas Meir set out to write his anthology of the Kennedys, he wanted to stay away from the half-truths about the political dynasty.

Instead, Mr. Meir traveled to Ireland, where he met with distant Kennedy cousins — including one who was a member of the Irish Republican Army — to investigate the family history.

He also visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, where he received rare approval from the family to view public and private documents, including those belonging to patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy. Those documents led Mr. Meir to Georgetown University, where he interviewed theologian Richard McSorley, who was one of the family’s favorite priests and who consoled first lady Jacqueline Kennedy after the president was killed.

The result: “The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings.”

“It’s the great American story,” Mr. Meir said in an interview, “when a grandson of an Irish immigrant can become president of the United States.”

In the 700-page book, Mr. Meir spends considerable time focusing on the Kennedy family’s life in Ireland and the role the Catholic Church played in shaping their deeply rooted sense of community and public service, which still exists today.

Mr. Meir, an investigative journalist for Newsday, said the policies set by the Kennedy administration pertaining to immigration, civil rights, women’s rights and foreign affairs all stemmed from the Catholic Church.

“It’s amazing how those beliefs have forged the Kennedys,” he said.

Mr. Kennedy drew on early family experiences in “Irish need not apply” America at the turn of the 20th century to understand the plight of blacks during his administration. Although Mr. Kennedy was initially lukewarm to the civil rights movement in the segregated South, he eventually became a strong proponent of equal rights for blacks.

“Therefore, let it be clear that it is not merely because of the Cold War, not merely because of the economic waste of discrimination that we are committed to achieving true equality of opportunity. The basic reason is because it is right,” he said in a 1963 speech.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Kennedy sent legislation to Congress calling for the elimination of the Jim Crow laws. The Civil Rights Act — much of which was crafted before Mr. Kennedy was killed — was passed by Congress in 1964.

Mr. Kennedy took the model of the Catholic Charities organization to establish the Peace Corps.

He assigned his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, a Catholic, to start the program, but wanted to make sure “the agency stayed separate from the missionary enterprises of all churches, including his own — a move resented by some in the Catholic hierarchy,” Mr. Meir writes.

Mr. Meir says the greatest legacy from the Kennedy administration isn’t the image of Camelot or the fact that Mr. Kennedy was the first Catholic elected president. Instead, Mr. Meir said, it was the immigration laws set forth within the 1,000 days of the Kennedy administration.

Mr. Meir uses a quote from Mr. Kennedy at the beginning of the book to illustrate the importance that his Irish heritage played in his immigration policy.

“All of us Irish descent are bound together by the ties that come from a common experience; experience which may exist only in memories and in legend but which is real enough to those who possess it,” a young Mr. Kennedy, then a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, said in 1957.

America, he said, was a “nation of immigrants.”

“As president, Kennedy sought to ensure that all minorities were given the same opportunities that his own family enjoyed, a sentiment repeated again and again by other Kennedys,” Mr. Meir writes.

Congress passed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act using Mr. Kennedy’s basic policy framework. The measure cleared the way for millions of immigrants to come to America.

During his search through personal letters, Mr. Meir found that Joseph Kennedy had brokered a deal with the Catholic Church to help get his son elected president.

“[Joe] Kennedy knew the lack of Catholic political influence, even among the Democrats, did not bode well for his son’s chances for the White House, and appeared anxious to do something about it,” Mr. Meir writes.

It appears that the elder Kennedy traded favors with the Vatican in exchange for clout and monetary support. Whether John Kennedy knew about his father’s dealings was not made clear in the documents, the author says.

“Without a doubt, it was the biggest secret going into the 1960 election,” Mr. Meir said.

Joseph Kennedy, infamous for his hardball and often illegal tactics, even helped negotiate a secret deal to install Ngo Dinh Diem, an ardent Catholic, as president of South Vietnam.

Yet President Kennedy publicly avoided the church that helped get him into the White House.

“Kennedy avoided being photographed with priests and nuns, careful not to stoke the fires of anti-Catholicism scattered across the land,” Mr. Meir writes.

Mr. Meir says his two years of research paid off more than he could have imagined. The Kennedy political dynasty turned its spirituality into one of America’s most treasured and tragic stories, he says, with perfect timing to usher a nation through one of its most important and darkest eras.

“John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his family were now the exemplars for the Irish Catholic experience in America, and, in doing so, they’d change their country forever.”


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