Garry Wills, who has been described as “a sort of intellectual outlaw” by the New York Times, has written many books related to politics, including Reagan’s America, Nixon Agonistes, Lincoln at Gettysburg (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), and The Kennedy Imprisonment, originally published in 1982. This 2017 edition of The Kennedy Imprisonment includes an updated preface, but is still essentially Wills taking on the myths surrounding the Kennedy clan and disabusing people of the popular vision of the Kennedy image as viewed through the lens of Camelot.
For Kennedy fans who haven’t done much reading about the reality, this book may be unsettling as it pulls back the curtain and reveals a corrupt and opportunistic political family who valued image over reality, flattering myths and stories over truth,
and a world of “almost-Kennedys” and hangers-on who gave up their own integrity for the privilege of basking in the reflected glory of the Kennedy clan.
Wills covers the PT-109 story and the expert manipulation of it in print and film, the question of actual authorship of Profiles in Courage, the story that was presented as historical fact about the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the notorious womanizing of Joe Sr., John, and Teddy (with Bobby allegedly being the faithful one).
The book is divided into five sections, each devoted to a particular aspect of the Kennedy family: Sex, Family, Image, Charisma, and Power. But even before we get to these, the prologue tells us the particular slant of the author: “Because of privilege of various sorts, bad behavior does not have consequences, which means that it continues and becomes more pronounced.” The heavy weight on each of the brothers following the deaths of their siblings culminates in Teddy’s sad comment: “After Robert was killed, he told his aide Dun Gifford: “I can’t let go. We have a job to do. If I let go, Ethel will let go, and my mother will let go, and all my sisters.”” Yikes, what a heavy load he carried…and his dysfunctional, doomed campaign for the Presidency in 1980 is covered in depth, including a good look at poor Joan, who never really made it into the insular inner circle of the clan.
Wills says there was a palpable energy between and among the Kennedys that excluded all outsiders: “When the nurse took the Kennedy children swimming at Taggert’s Pier, back in the thirties, they all wore the same color bathing hats, so they could be distinguished from the other children…Ever since they have been wearing invisible caps that signal to each other on a radio frequency no one else can use.”
I have vivid memories of JFK’s inauguration (when a TV was wheeled into my elementary school classroom so we could watch and hear his speech) and the assassinations, including the televised coverage of the aftermath each time another tragedy unfolded. I admit it was a bit disconcerting to learn the level to which coverage and myth protection was managed and manipulated, but I was still pleased to have the opportunity to read a copy of this edition (thanks to Open Road Integrated Media and NetGalley).
For me, the problem is that this book, written as it was in the early 1980s, assumed a familiarity with many of the people and events that was likely appropriate 30+ years ago, but for many of us, memories fade – and for others, there is complete cluelessness about who these people are and what their significance was to the Kennedy story of the 1960s-80s.
In addition to needing to figure out the characters and their roles, the author’s writing became annoying. I appreciate a strong vocabulary, but in several instances, it seemed like a simpler word might have served the purpose: for example, “jansenist,” “circumnambient,””orotundities,””thurible,” and “perdured’ seem a bit over the top (while the less puzzling “circumlocutious,” panegyric,” and “simulacra” seem to adequately demonstrate the author’s fine vocabulary). Or maybe it’s just me, and everyone else is completely familiar with the over-the-top examples listed above? In any case, that detracted from my appreciation of the book. (And spellcheck was equally puzzled by 7 of the 8 words listed above!)
In any case, it is a fine history of the clan and their impact on U.S. history and, while it may provoke a certain level of disappointment for readers to learn about both the human frailties and downright corrupt actions of their heroes, it is hugely entertaining. Political junkies in particular will love this. Four stars.