Friday, February 23, 2007
Kennedy-mania in the Penny Press!
Holy Haddock! It's Kennedy-mania in the Penny Press this time around! Like chum in the water to those of us here at Stevereads.
In New York magazine, Mark Jacobson turns in a piece called "American Jeremiad" about Robert Kennedy Jr, and it's a puzzler of a thing. On the surface, it looks like a straightforward interview/profile. But either Jacobson or his editors seem to want it to be some kind of expose - there are lunges at drug use and the like, and even an alert reader is hard-pressed to figure out WHY they're there.
RFK Jr. is certainly an easy target, what with the drug- bust in the shadow of frickin' Mount Rushmore, but that's hardly the point - after all, EVERY Kennedy is an easy target, that's half the point of BEING a Kennedy.
And reading the article, you get the sense that Jacobson has a pretty good handle on the whole Kennedy thing. This is a rare enough thing in a reporter of any stripe, but still: one could hope for an entirely preconception-free approach.
It's a good strong piece nonetheless. The two men met at the North Castle Diner in White Plains and talked about a fairly wide variety of topics, mostly RFK Jr's favorite stomping ground, the environment.
RFK Jr 'came to the river' (nominally, the Hudson River Valley, but in the broader context, all things natural) late in life - after the aforementioned coke bust - but despite the bitter little sour-grapes snipes of the one naysayer Jacobson can dig up, there's no way to doubt his conviction to the issues that have taken over his life in the place of drugs and drink.
To his credit, Jacobson doesn't dwell overlong on his subject's sordid past - especially not when his subject is so eager to provide alternate targets.
It turns out Robert Kennedy Junior, at least from the evidence gleaned from this interview, is every bit as sharp, every bit as focussed, and very nearly every bit as intelligent as his martyred father (that 'very nearly' will only sound ungenerous to the uninitiated, but it's true, and even JFK grudgingly admitted it, always referring to his brother as 'the brains of the outfit').
At one point Jacobson asks RKF Jr about that nebulous catch-all, the vision of America. Now for a moment, picture our current president being asked to verbally render his account of that theme. Picture that, roll it around in your mind for an excrutiating long moment. Then when you can't stand it anymore, listen to the reply Jacobson got:
"There is an ancient struggle between two separate philosophies, warring for control of the American soul. The first was set forth by John Winthrop in 1630, when he made the most important speech in American history, 'A Model of Christian Charity,' on the deck of the sloop Arbella, as the Puritans approached the New World. He said this land is being given to us by God not to satisfy carnal opportunities, or expand self-interest, but rather to create a shining city on a hill. This is the American ideal, working together, maintaining a spiritual mission, and creating communities for the future.
"The competing vision of America comes from the conquistador side of the national character and took hold with the gold rush of 1849. That's when people began to regard the land as the source of private wealth, a place where you can get rich quick - the sort of game where whomever dies with the biggest pile wins."
That 'whomever' alone is enough to bring hot tears to the eyes of every intelligent American who's been watching the news for the last six years.
Some of you will know where we here at Stevereads stand on the Kennedys. We couldn't be more indifferent to the various sex scandals and drug scandals - they aren't indicators of anything at all, just accurate demographics of a large family. The plain truth is, for most of human history governments have been ruled by families, for good or ill. This has been mostly for ill, to the tune of 95 percent. The luckiest common people have always been the ones who happened to live under GOOD families.
Read that verbally-coherent John Winthrop quote again. Think about the family currently ruling this country. Then ask the question RFK Jr. himself asks during Jacobson's interview: What's wrong with more generations of Kennedys?
"It's a good question, especially since we'd just spent the past 45 minutes discussing the comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq and how he is certain his uncle Jack would have stopped the sixties war because 'he was a military man and he knew what idiots the brass were and not to trust anything they said.' He is equally sure that had his father lived to become president in 1968, the war would have ended then. 'Because he said he would and he wasn't a liar.'
No, I have to admit. If not driving an SUV is going to make the planet a copasetic place for future generations of Jacobsons, then there might as well be more Kennedys, too. There is just too much history between us, too much investment in hope, requited and not. You might even drink to it, if Bobby Kennedy Jr. drank."
Over in the latest Vanity Fair, there's another Kennedy-related item, this one about the man himself, JFK.
Robert Evans, Hollywood mucky-muck and author of the genuinely entertaining memoir 'The Kid Stays in the Picture,' is writing a new book, 'Kid Notorious.' And in this memoir, he retails a JFK anecdote of his very own.
The scene: it's the summer of 1949 and Evans is a hot young actor sharking debutante balls on the Upper West Side.
In his anecdote, he's at one such party when Congressman Kennedy shows up:
"A couple of minutes later, the luncheon's guest of honor arrived. What a shocker! He was No. 1 on America's Most Wanted List - to shack up with, that is. His name: Congressman Jack Kennedy, from Massachusetts. He was top honcho on every lady's 'heat list.' The more he broad-smiled, the wetter them panties got. He knew it, and they knew he knew it!"
OK, let's hold our noses against the mogul-prose and forge on. In the anecdote, Evans claims .... well, he claims so much, it's probably best to let him do the talking:
"The clock struck three. Desserts were being served. The good congressman stood and thanked Miss Society for the fun lunch.
Then, wide-smiling all, he begged an early exit. 'It's not easy keeping a seat anywhere these days, much less in Congress. If I weren't running for re-election, I'd take up residence right here on East 73rd Street. But I have to be on the road before the sun goes down, and I promised His Excellency, Bishop Donahue, I'd spend a bit of time with him before I left for Boston.' The congressman had them words down cold. He knew what to say, when to say it, and how to say it.
Wishing everyone good-bye as he was leaving, he took me by total surprise ... he actually remembered my name! Impressed? Big! Yeah, but dumb me. I must have been itchin' for trouble.
'When you see His Excellency, would you give him my regards?'
A dead-ass silence hit the patio. Miss Society closed her eyes, thinkin,' This ain't Harlem. I knew I shouldn't have invited him!
The congressman, he gave a triple take.
'You know His Excellency?'
'Very well.' He didn't believe me. His face showed it.
'Very well, huh?'
'That's correct, Congressman. Very well.'
He was enjoying the confrontation, certain I was lying.
'Join me then. We'll pay him a visit together.'
'Is that an invite?'
'Absolutely!' Then a wide smile. 'I'm sure he'll take great pleasure in seeing you again!'
We left together ... by far the best exit of my young life. Them debu-tramps? Their open mouths matched their upturned noses. What they didn't know was that the actor from the West Side was not showboating. He did know His Excellency. He knew him well. Well enough to put him right smack in the slammer!
For the record, I was never invited back to East 73rd Street.
As we drove across the park to West 96th Street, the congressman threw me a look. 'Why did you say that you knew Bishop Donahue?'
'I'm an actor. I like getting reactions.'
'I was right! You don't know him.'
'You are wrong, Congressman! I do know him well ... It's a story you don't wanna hear.'
The congressman's street smarts matched his Harvard diploma. He didn't ask another question."
The congressman drops our sooper-cool young memoirist off somewhere, and they meet again only in '62 at a swanky Fifth Avenue gala. The prose that follows is breathless even by Evans' standards:
"Our eyes met. Our hands shook. Would he remember me? The last time we eyed each other, I had yet to shave. At best, a trivial incident on his historic climb to the top step of the world's ladder.
But that was why he was standing on it: he remembered well!
Smiling, Jack got in the final lick: 'I've followed your career closely. Congratulations.'"
Well, OK. Evans isn't a young man anymore, and everybody's entitled to their tall tales. But even pardoning the naked self-aggrandizement on display in his anecdote, there are a couple of places where it smells like cod liver oil.
For instance, even in '49, the Congressman almost never went anywhere alone. MAYBE in Boston, but never in New York. There were always cronies, handlers, and even sometimes friends along.
Also, His Excellency Bishop Donahue was in fact one of the only New York prelates who DIDN'T partake of the slammer-able offense to which Evans alludes.
Also, and this one is a bit of a clincher, the Congressman absolutely NEVER drove his own transportation. Had he driven even the short distance Evans mentions, just across Central Park, there would have been piles of sideswiped trees, signs, small animals, and people left in his wake.
Only the final detail, the fact that JFK remembered Evans' name, rings entirely true: no Kennedy ever forgot a name or disposition. But even that is in its way a refutation: they remembered everybody - it wasn't a mark of distinction.
Still, 'The Kid Stays in the Picture' was an entertaining read, so this new memoir might be also. Kennedy fish-stories notwithstanding.