Does the world really need another sweeping book about the Kennedy family? Thomas Maier, author of biographies of Dr. Benjamin Spock and S. I. Newhouse, thinks so, and the result is this massive study of "the ultimate Irish-Catholic family" whose members were, he says, nothing less than "America's emerald kings."
All the familiar stories are here, from the early political successes of Boston's John Fitzgerald to the later victories of his namesake grandson, though Maier extends the usual saga by one generation on either end. His narrative begins with the emigration of the first Kennedy from famine-ravaged Ireland in 1848 and concludes with the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1999.
In between, there is useful new material. Maier is one of the only researchers to have been given access to the papers of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy's father, papers that have long been held by the Kennedy Library but have not been generally available to scholars.
Maier is able to shed light on some subjects that have been understood poorly or not at all. Detailed here, for instance, are the efforts of "Old Joe" at both seeking favors from and doing favors for the Vatican, through his friendship with Count Enrico Galeazzi, a longtime adviser to Pope Pius XII. Similarly, the hardball politics that won the young Navy veteran John F. Kennedy, in many ways a wholly implausible candidate, a congressional seat from Massachusetts in 1946 are described more fully and colorfully than ever before.
The lack of specific citation of documents in the ambassador's papers is frustrating, however, because it means that anyone else who gets to use them will have to start all over. Still, Maier has shown that it is possible to turn up something new in a field that has been plowed for so long by so many.
The book also has attracted attention because of its description of the friendship between Jacqueline Kennedy and a Jesuit priest from Georgetown University. The Rev. Richard McSorley served as a spiritual counselor to her in the aftermath of her husband's assassination, and Maier recounts verbatim conversations between the two, including one in which the young widow was apparently contemplating suicide.
The accuracy of these too-precise accounts, based on McSorley's diaries and on interviews with the priest before his death, is open to question, but more important, the priest's revelations seem to violate the seal of privacy in the confessional. Such conversations clearly occurred outside the sacrament, however: Maier presents them as having taken place as the two lobbed tennis balls to each other at Robert and Ethel Kennedy's estate in Virginia. No doubt this sensational episode will now be firmly fixed among the enduring legends about the family, though cooler historical heads will be skeptical.
More broadly, the theme to which Maier returns repeatedly is the special connection between the Kennedys and their ancestral homeland, and that this "emerald thread" is somehow the key to understanding them. The book opens with President Kennedy's trip to Ireland in 1963 and returns to discuss that trip later.
No involvement with Ireland is too trivial to be overlooked. Congressman Kennedy's brief 1947 visit, a stopover on a European congressional junket, merits a whole chapter, for instance. The discussion of US Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith's role in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, seeking to stop sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, is more welcome, even if the ultimate success of that effort remains to be seen.
But is there something distinctively and lastingly Irish about the Kennedys that is different from any other Irish-American family with its own misty half-memories and unsupported claims to ancient royalty? The case is more asserted than proved.
Worse, all the stereotypes about what it means to be Irish get yet another airing: the cruelty of fate, the loyalty to family, the weakness for drink, the touch of poetry, and on and on. Such facile caricatures would be rightly thought objectionable if applied to other groups, and they are similarly useless here, seeming to explain more than they really can.
Maier is a fine writer, and the book moves along at a brisk pace, but the whole is not entirely satisfying. He is not as skeptical of his sources as he ought to be: If someone says that something is so, it's so, even if it's remembered long after the fact. Gloria Swanson's obviously fabricated account of Cardinal William O'Connell's efforts to break up her romance with Joe Kennedy, for example, is no less preposterous today than it was when she retailed the story 20 years ago.
Still, Maier has assembled a comprehensive view of the Kennedys in a book that belongs on any shelf that hopes to gather all that has been written about this remarkable family.
James M. O'Toole teaches history at Boston College. He is the author of "Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family" (2002) and co-editor, with David Quigley, of "Boston's Histories: Essays in Honor of Thomas H. O'Connor."