Feckless Youth

What Kennedy magic?

There was something more than tawdry about the detention in Washington last May of Representative Patrick Kennedy, Democrat of Rhode Island. Having long been the butt of jokes about his inability to find his way to the Capitol unaided, he smashed his car into a Hill security barrier at 2:45 in the morning, claiming to be in a hurry to vote long after all his fellow congressmen were in bed. Avoiding an on-the-spot sobriety test, and later dodging allegations about his attendance at the nearby Hawk ’n Dove drinking establishment, he claimed a just-then-fashionable addiction to the sleep aid Ambien and vanished into the Mayo Clinic. On his emergence, he gave a press conference at Brown University and asserted that he’d received no special treatment from the police. “I expect at the end of the day to have made sure that I will have done the same thing in terms of the charges, in terms of bookings, in terms of mug shots, fingerprints, whatever they might have me do, if [I] were an African American in Anacostia and were picked up,” he managed to say, before comparing his struggle to help addicts to the earlier battles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was reported that, at Brown at any rate, his remarks won him a standing ovation.

There was such a good match between this little Kennedy fiasco and so many, many preceding ones, from Martha’s Vineyard to Palm Beach, that the press in its coverage reflected its own almost trance-like state. Why, here was a story that almost wrote itself. Meanwhile, the publishing industry continues to find that there is a never-ending market for books that feature the Kennedys as either “magic” or “royalty.” (Recent developments among the delinquent progeny of Queen Elizabeth II admittedly make this comparison, insulting as it is to republican virtues, considerably more plausible.)

Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of the Kennedy “charisma” without the Court of St. James’s and the associated radiance diffused by the British aristocracy. Joseph Kennedy, the resentful patriarch who sponsored the political careers of at least his male issue, may have been hated by the British for his pro-Hitler sympathies while serving at the embassy in Grosvenor Square but, as Professor James Giglio points out, he did know how to be lavish and obsequious when he had to be. Seizing hold of young Jack’s 1940 Harvard senior thesis, handing it to Arthur Krock of The New York Times for a rewrite and persuading Henry Luce to write a foreword, then portentously retitling it Why England Slept, the assiduous envoy finally had it gift-wrapped and sent around to Buckingham Palace and many of the great houses of London. As he wrote to Jack: “You would be surprised how a book that really makes the grade with high-class people stands you in good stead for years to come.”

This grating arrivisme points up an ambivalence in the discrepant Anglo-American usages of the term class. On this side of the Atlantic, the word means “style” or perhaps “poise” or “polish,” as in classy or a class act. On the English side, it can now mean that too, but it also (especially with the prefix high‑) means “class” as in hereditary status. The great merit of Barbara Leaming’s new book is to demonstrate how dependent the young Kennedy became upon a charmed circle of British noblemen, and also how obsessed he became with the need to match himself with that greatest of Anglo-American aristocrats, Winston Churchill. When he first visited England, in the 1930s, his sister Kathleen, known as “Kick,” had already been an unusually well-accepted American guest in British town- and country-house circles. She later (over the strong Catholic sectarian objections of her mother, Rose) married the Marquess of Hartington, eldest son and heir of the Duke of Devonshire. When Hartington was killed, in Belgium in September 1944, the dukedom passed to his younger brother, Andrew (whose widow, Deborah Mitford, is now the last survivor of the most astonishing set of English sisters since the Brontës). One almost needs to draw a family tree at this point, but Harold Macmillan—later prime minister—was married to the Duke of Devonshire’s daughter, and Sir David Ormsby-Gore—later Macmillan’s ambassador to Washington—was a cousin of Andrew Devonshire’s and had a sister to whom Macmillan was also father-in-law. Whether “in-” or not, this certainly constitutes “breeding,” and conforms to most people’s notion of “class” or “dynasty.”

This influential group had generally identified with the pro-Churchill Tory minority against Baldwin and Chamberlain, had generally performed well in the Second World War, and was to become politically central in the years when young John Kennedy was emerging as a congressman and senator. While Kennedy was making his compromises with Joe McCarthy, taking positions against Western colonialism, and accusing Eisenhower and Nixon of being soft on communism, these Tory aristos were trying to manage the orderly decline of the British postwar empire, and to prevent their nation from further bankrupting itself in an arms race in which it was too insolvent to compete.

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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