Before Camelot

The Patriarch
The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy
David Nasaw
The Penguin Press, $40, 868 pp.

I began reading this book fully expecting it to affirm my pre-existing low opinion of its protagonist. I finished it persuaded that Joseph P. Kennedy was easily the most formidable and most interesting member of the clan that owes its prominence in American life to his shrewd and unstinting exertions.

Let us not confuse formidability with likeability or virtue, however. As David Nasaw, professor of history at the City University of New York, makes clear in this extraordinarily fine biography, Kennedy was a man of many parts, few of which make him a prospective candidate for canonization.

Ruthless, energetic, charming when he wished to be, Kennedy possessed an astonishing aptitude for making money, whether in good times or in bad—of that there can be no doubt. As a corner-cutting entrepreneur, he was typically three steps ahead of his nearest competitor and barely three inches this side of the law. Yet he wanted more than money. He wanted power. And for his family—perhaps too for his coreligionists—he wanted status and recognition.

So when business needed policing—that is, when regulating Wall Street meshed with his own ambitions without threatening his...

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About the Author

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations emeritus at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.