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The Kennedy Family and American Political Lore

August 27, 2009 at 4:09 PM EDT
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Judy Woodruff speaks with historians Richard Norton Smith and Michael Beschloss about the life and times of America's most famous political dynasty.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thousands of people have waited in line today outside the Kennedy Library for the chance to see the senator’s casket. And just a short while ago, the public viewing inside began.

A contingent of family, friends, and former staffers are sitting vigil in one-hour shifts, and the viewing will continue this evening and tomorrow during the day.

Now, a look back at the life and times of the legendary political family, and to Judy Woodruff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And joining us now to reflect on the history of that renowned political family are two of our NewsHour regulars: Richard Norton Smith, scholar-in-residence at George Mason University; and presidential historian Michael Beschloss, he joins us from Boston.

It’s good to have you both back.

Richard, what is it about the Kennedy family? I mean, there are other families of great wealth, families that have been into politics, but this one was different.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: This one was different. It depends on which Kennedy family you’re talking about, whether you’re talking about the Kennedys who are enormously important, serious legislators, as was the case with Senator Kennedy, or if you’re talking about the Kennedys in the tabloids.

If you think of the Adamses, or the Tafts, you know, or the Bushes, how many books have been written about those families? How many books have been written about the Kennedys? In part, we grew up with this family. You know, Joe Kennedy was not above, in effect, exploiting his children in the media. His son, John, famously, when Jackie was out of town, had pictures taken of John-John under that desk. That’s part of our growing up.

And the history, too, our lives intersected. Everyone remembers the Cuban missile crisis. Everyone remembers John F. Kennedy’s assassination. These are common points of reference.

So I think, in part because of television, in part because of the drama, in part because of the melodrama, we have bonds to this family that are unique in American history.

Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Beschloss, remind us who Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of this family, born in 1888, the son of a saloon owner, what did he want for himself and for his children?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: He wanted to build a political dynasty that cranked out presidents, and he succeeded. And that's what's unusual about the Kennedys, because you look at the Adamses.

You know, John Adams was not averse to the idea that John Quincy Adams might become president, but despite some of his critics, he didn't really have in mind creating a long political dynasty. Same thing with the Roosevelts; same thing with the Lodges and the Tafts, as Richard mentioned.

Joe Kennedy, on the other hand, in the 1930s, at the time that he was ambassador to London, he thought seriously about running for president himself in 1940, finally concluded that the times had not changed enough for an Irish Catholic to get elected. So then he said, you know, my son, Joe, Jr., natural candidate, extraverted, great looking, smart boy, I'm going to begin building his career. Joe was killed over the English Channel in 1944 during World War II.

And the moment which really solidified all this is, you know, Joe Kennedy's dreams had been shattered. The only person to take them up was Jack Kennedy, who was back home from the war, 1945. He was sick. He was depressed. His father said, "I can't get Jack interested in anything." He was introverted.

You know, the last kind of person you would imagine, couldn't give a speech, but Joe Kennedy said, "You have to do it." Jack Kennedy said, "I was drafted almost against my will."

And so what I'm saying is that this dynasty was really molded by one man's will. You know, one point that really sort of makes it: 1957, Joe Kennedy gave an interview to a reporter saying, "John Kennedy will be president. Robert Kennedy will be attorney general. Ted Kennedy will be a senator from Massachusetts." All those things happened; that was all Joe Kennedy.

The arc of American liberalism

JUDY WOODRUFF: The name "Kennedy," Richard, is synonymous with liberalism. Was it always that way?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: That's a great question. Actually, a wonderful way to trace the arc, the trajectory of liberalism in America is to look at the three Kennedy brothers.

John Kennedy in 1960, people forget, Richard Nixon and John Kennedy didn't have very sharp differences. One reason why style became so important was because substantively they were both -- you know, Nixon was a little right of center, Kennedy was a little left of center.

They were both part of a post-war consensus largely dictated by the Cold War. John Kennedy was a cold warrior president. Read the bristling eloquence of his inaugural address.

Now, importantly, before he died -- and he had gone through the Cuban missile crisis -- he came to a different view of the Cold War, and I think it can be argued that John Kennedy took us through probably the most critical moment in the Cold War.

Bobby Kennedy, on the other hand, turns against the war in Vietnam, becomes a genuine champion of the dispossessed -- black, brown, red -- and that torch is then, of course, carried on by his brother, Ted.

But John Kennedy, we forget, was a reluctant convert to the civil rights cause, although, again, before his death, he had become converted to that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was just going to say, Michael, what would you add to that? And if the Kennedys were so influential, how do you explain the many years of Ronald Reagan, of the two Bush presidencies, the fact the country is so divided? Does that mean the Kennedys weren't so influential after all?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Not a bit, because the country always goes through conservative and liberal periods. In the 1960s, that was the time that was ripe for Kennedy liberalism.

One reason why John Kennedy became more liberal was not even so much conviction; it was because it was politically possible. You know, Kennedy turned against the Cold War in 1963 because he had demonstrated that he was tough in the Cuban missile crisis. He could afford to go after a test ban treaty. In 1963, he could afford to be for civil rights; '61, he didn't feel that way.

So that was a time that, if you were interested in being re-elected president or being elected president, as Bobby Kennedy was in 1968, probably the best route to that was to be a liberal. And, of course, you know, that was, I think, basically what they would have liked to do in any case.

But the thing about Ted Kennedy is where this consistent liberalism comes from. When Teddy was elected senator from Massachusetts, 1962, age of 30, he presumed that he was going to be senator from Massachusetts his whole life, pretty unlikely that he would ever run for president.

And if you run from Massachusetts and you want to be a liberal, not only can you be, but that's the route to political success. And after 1968, he became a potential president, that continued.

The Kennedy family legacy

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just, finally, let's strip away the celebrity you spoke about earlier, Richard, the deliberate effort to -- you used the term "exploit." When you push all that aside, how did the Kennedys change this country?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: They changed it in a number of ways. You can point to any number of specific bills, pieces of legislation, for example, that Ted Kennedy passed, that has transformed health care, education, made it easier for people to go to college, minimum wage, workplace issues, women's rights, civil rights, health care, the debate that we're going on.

Arguably, Barack Obama is no small part of the Kennedy legacy, in many ways, the logical conclusion of almost 50 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we can't leave out Eunice Shriver, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Eunice Shriver, of course, who put on the national agenda the cause of the mentally retarded.

So, you know, each family member had its own impact. Beyond that, there is the example, the inspiration of this family, wealthy family, that never had to go into public service, but that not only went into public service, but that gave one son after another after another in that cause.

And that's more ethereal than the specifics, but I think it goes to your earlier question. It's a large part of the Kennedy legend and the Kennedy mystique. And it's why the last word about this family will not be written for a very long time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Beschloss, what's going to endure the most from all of this, as we move ahead without a Kennedy at the center, as we've had?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, aside from all the things that Ted Kennedy did and his brothers, you know, he was the one counterweight in the Democratic Party. From 1976 on, he was the one who said, "Jimmy Carter is too conservative." And he even said of the 1990s, I like Bill Clinton as a person, but I don't like this triangulation. You know, that's not the heart of the Democratic Party.

Kennedy kept on insisting the Democrats have to be a liberal party, have to be for the outs, the people who are less privileged in this country, and he kept with it, and I think you can very much say that that had a large role in Barack Obama's becoming president last year, because, in January of 2008, if you hadn't had Ted Kennedy saying, despite what Hillary Clinton is saying, I think Barack Obama is ready on day one to be a great president, he might have lost that nomination.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, much to talk about and will continue to be much to talk about as we watch the events over the weekend. Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, thank you both.