The Bigger Picture
Published on September 3rd in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Have you ever planned to do, or maybe write, about something and then something happens that makes what you were planning to do or write about seem insignificant? Well that is exactly what happened to me this week. I’d like to say the column I planned to write for today will appear next week instead, but I can’t say for certain. Truth be known, it is entirely possible that column will never get written.
Why? Because as I write this an American political icon, Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, the “Last Lion in the Senate”, is being laid to rest near the graves of his brothers, Robert and John at Arlington National Cemetery. But the man who gave Ted this moniker during last year’s heated Presidential contest, wasn’t President Obama, it was Republican Presidential candidate John McCain. McCain said Kennedy was the “last lion in the Senate because he remains the single most effective member of the Senate.”
Ted was also the lone surviving son of Joseph (Joe) P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, but he learned more about the art of politics from his two grandfathers, East Boston “backroom” political boss P. J. Kennedy and Boston Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, than he did from his powerful and politically connected father. But in order to understand the role that Ted Kennedy has played in America’s recent political history, its equally important that one understands the history of America’s most famous family.
P.J. Kennedy and “Honey Fitz” were both sons of Irish immigrants who left Ireland during the potato famine and immigrated to America. Honey Fitz got involved in Democratic Party politics shortly after he dropped out of Harvard Medical School. Honey Fitz was a stylish showman with a gift of gab and warmth of character that in turn led to his nickname, Honey Fitz. In other words, Honey Fitz was a natural politician, so it wasn’t long before he became the most recognizable Irish-American on Boston’s North End. Honey Fitz also loved to make speeches that were often referred to as “Fitzblarney” and that got him elected Boston’s mayor 3 times around the turn of the twentieth century.
On the other hand, P. J. Kennedy’s involvement in politics came much later in his career because he had been forced to leave school at the age of 14 to support his widowed mother and sisters as a dockworker. P. J. then used the money he saved from this job to buy a saloon on Haymarket Square and launch his career in the liquor business. Before he was thirty his liquor importing business, P.J. Kennedy and Co. was the largest in Boston.
P.J. also had a reputation for giving money and advice to less fortunate Irish emigrants, which made him very popular and respected in the East Boston ward where he lived and worked. This popularity and respect led to P.J.’s involvement in politics and he was subsequently elected to 5 terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and 3 more terms in the Massachusetts Senate.
But in contrast to Honey Fitz, P.J. Kennedy didn’t really like all the campaigning and speech making required of politicians. P.J. was much more at home with the backroom wheeling and dealing of ward politics so after he left the Massachusetts Senate in 1896, he spent the remainder of his political career as the Democratic political boss of Boston’s Ward 2 and in appointed positions as elections and fire commissioner.
Joseph Kennedy was P.J.’s eldest child and only son and thanks to P.J.’s business success, Joe was able to get the education that P.J. never had an opportunity to get. Although Joe never started a business from scratch like his father did, Joe nonetheless proved to be a savvy business entrepreneur and financial investor with a keen eye for value. Joe first used his financial expertise and insider information to make a small fortune for him and his Irish-American colleagues during the 1920’s stock market boom. Then, unlike most other wealthy Americans, Joe vastly increased the Kennedy family’s wealth during the Depression years through his investments in real estate.
Joe was a friend and prominent supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt but cut short his own political career when, as America’s British Ambassador, he advocated negotiating with Hitler and disparaged Britain’s fight against the Nazi’s by telling the Boston Globe that “Democracy is finished in England. It may be here.” A political pariah, Joe subsequently devoted himself and his fortune to promoting the political career of his eldest son, Joe Jr. But after Joe Jr.’s untimely death during World War II, Joe Sr. only became more determined to see both of his remaining eldest sons, John and Robert become President of the United States. As a result, Joe’s youngest son Ted spent most of his time learning about politics from his grandfathers, rather than his Dad and brothers.
When Ted’s father, Joe, married his mother, Rose, the eldest daughter of Boston’s most recognizable politician in 1914, the marriage also resulted in the merging of Boston’s two most powerful political families. While this Boston political union and the influence of Irish-American politicians in Chicago, New York, Pittsburg, Philadelphia and New Jersey coupled with Joe Sr.’s considerable financial resources definitely aided John and Robert in their respective bids to become US President, it was Joe Sr.’s often overlooked youngest son, Ted, who I believe benefitted most from his two grandfathers accumulated wisdom borne of their many years of political experience.
The funeral is about to begin so I must now take my leave and join millions of my fellow Americans who will say goodbye to a true statesmen and one of the greatest American legislators of all time. Some of these Americans are the poor he tried to help while others are wealthy or famous, but most of them are just ordinary American citizens, a testament to Ted Kennedy’s common touch. I will conclude my thoughts about Ted Kennedy, his legacy and America’s most famous family in next week’s column.