The Kennedy family has kept the American public fascinated for decades. Whether it’s their charm and good looks, their recurring tragedies, or the inevitable conspiracy theories surrounding such tragedy, that family has staying power.
Of course the more famous Jack, Bobby, and Teddy stole the show due to their political prominence. But what’s remarkable to me is the sheer breadth of personality and charisma spread out across those nine children of Joe and Rose Kennedy. Libraries could be filled with the volumes written about the three brothers mentioned above. But within the last year, sisters
Rosemary and Kathleen (“Kick”) have been the subject of well-received biographies.
Right now I’m reading the one about Kick, the favorite Kennedy daughter and temperamentally nearly identical to Jack: adventurous, self-confident, and intellectually hungry. Much like Jack, she too died far too young, and her true potential was never fulfilled. But the book details her jet-setting lifestyle while her father served as Ambassador to the Court of St. James under FDR. Being the offspring of a wealthy and politically connected man like Joe Kennedy Sr. had its advantages. But Ambassador Kennedy and his family lived in London just at the outset of the Second World War. Despite her privileged place in Western society, the War found a way to disrupt even her personal ambitions, forcing her to return to America, effectively breaking off her budding romance with a member of the British aristocracy.
Contrast this experience with another of that cohort of young Americans fighting and living through World War II. In the book and miniseries Pacific, following a few young men in the Pacific Theater of the War, we see boys from all walks of life going hungry together, fighting through exhaustion together, and doing what was necessary together. Most of these guys were blue-collar Americans, whose fortunes rose after their service with the help of the G.I. bill and the booming postwar economy.
Just like Kick, their young lives were disrupted by a world event. Certainly the sons of Italian immigrants and scions of Southern families had little in common with the New England socialite Kick, but all assumed a level of responsibility in order to serve in a time of need. The young men gave their all in the Pacific front; Kick eventually served in the American Red Cross. Sure her life was disrupted much less than the men who died in the battlefront or the families who lost all their offspring from the War.
But the point is that these young Americans coalesced in wartime, and then, despite their differences, coalesced in peacetime, ushering in the political consensus which made American productivity in government and industry skyrocket for decades.
You may not recognize the unified America mentioned above because, after all, this book and miniseries by definition depict history. But such stories about national unity in the face of times much more turbulent than ours give hope to this eternal optimist that the gulfs dividing us all can be bridged, since it’s been done before. Your newspaper or cable channel may not tell you that, but turn off the noise and read about or talk to the few living members of the G.I., or Greatest, Generation, and you’ll gain a newfound perspective.