Disciples came in flocks that sun-baked May afternoon in 1957, packing the pews at St. Mary’s and spilling onto the streets outside the Irish parish in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Joseph Raymond McCarthy had been baptized and now, just forty-eight years later, he was being eulogized. It was the last of three memorials to the fallen senator and the first in the state that had elected him in landslides. Twenty-five thousand admirers from Green Bay, Neenah, and his native Grand Chute had paid their respects at his open casket. Others were keeping vigil outside the church alongside honor guards of military police and Boy Scouts. Flying in to join them were nineteen senators, seven congressmen, and other luminaries, most of whom had supported Joe McCarthy in his relentless assault on Communism. The dignitaries were whisked in a motorcade from the airport in Green Bay to the funeral in Appleton.
But one man faltered on the runway. Robert Francis Kennedy had worked as an aide to McCarthy for seven months before political and personal calculations made him step aside. Now he sat anxiously by himself on the military jet, reluctant to be seen with the conservative lawmakers and conflicted even about being in Wisconsin. His own brother, Jack, had sternly warned him to stay away. When the crowd was gone, Kennedy slipped down the exit ramp unnoticed. Nobody was waiting because no one knew he was coming. He rode into town not with the pack of senators and congressmen but in the front seat of a Cadillac convertible driven by the reporter Edwin Bayley, who was covering McCarthy’s funeral for the Milwaukee Journal. At the church, Bobby sat in the choir loft, distracted and alone, and at the graveside he stood apart from the rest of the officials from Washington. When the service was over, Kennedy asked Bayley and other journalists not to write about his being there. The reporters, already in the Kennedy thrall, did as he asked.
The relationship between Robert Kennedy and Joseph McCarthy is one of the most implausible in U.S. political history. In the lexicon of American politics, the Kennedy name is shorthand for left-leaning Democratic politics, and it is a tenet of Kennedy scholarship that the first and archetypal family liberal was Bobby. The historical cliché, nourished by his family and friends, posits that Kennedy’s going to work for McCarthy was a footnote or an aberration when it was neither. The truth is that the early Bobby Kennedy embraced the overheated anticommunism of the 1950s and openly disdained liberals. His job with the Republican senator from Wisconsin not only launched Bobby’s career but injected into his life passion and direction that had been glaringly absent. McCarthy’s zeal, extreme though it was, fired Kennedy’s ambition for years to come. He quit McCarthy not because he rejected McCarthyism, but because his advancement was stymied by conflict with fellow staffers. While he did work for the senator for just seven and a half months in 1953, their ties went back a number of years, and they lasted until Bobby made his last visit to McCarthy shortly before the senator died.
His link to McCarthy became a crucible Kennedy couldn’t escape, serving for some as a testament to his loyalty and patriotism, for others as a measure of his youthful misdirection and overreaching. Both were right. Bobby was so enamored of the senator that he failed to see the fanaticism that, by the time he signed on, had already made McCarthy’s name a synonym for witch hunt and crowned “Low-Blow Joe” the most divisive man in America. Nor did he ever fully sever those bonds or entirely break the bad habits he learned from the senator from Grand Chute. Yet if Bobby was guilty of embracing or tolerating the Red Scare, so, too, was much of the nation in the 1950s. In the end, this McCarthy phase of his life would be a baseline from which to measure Bobby’s—and America’s—political transformation and growth.
To appreciate how he reached that baseline we need to go back to Bobby’s beginnings. The story of America’s First Family has been recounted so many times that it is part of American mythology. Nearly everyone knows some version of the dogged-upstart-to-fat-cat, East Boston–to–West Wing tale. But Robert Kennedy’s pivotal place in that narrative is seldom acknowledged. Overlooked especially is his ongoing and all-important relationship with his father, Joe, and the fact that it was Bobby who was most like him and best suited to take over his leadership of the clan. Even Joe didn’t get it at first.
Autocratic, magnetic, and unflinchingly family-focused, Joseph Patrick Kennedy was the model for all nine of his children, but particularly the boys. His upbringing set the pattern for theirs, and his single-minded pursuit of wealth and influence served as a template for what his four sons—and the third most of all—would accomplish in the political realm. Joe’s roots ran deep both in his native Massachusetts, where the WASP establishment ruled the landscape into which he was born in 1888, and in his ancestral Ireland, whose call Joe never escaped. Yet the great patriarch’s tale is not quite the Horatio Alger version that most of us think it to be. He was a self-starter but was not self-made. His father, Patrick Joseph Kennedy, was one of Boston’s most influential and fair-minded political chieftains, serving five one-year terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and two two-year stints in the state Senate. He spent still longer as a Democratic ward boss, a post from which he could dole out offices, jobs, and favors in a capital city dominated by Democrats and, increasingly, by Irishmen. While politics was P.J.’s passion, it was his business acumen that gave him the time and resources to indulge it. He started life working with his hands as a brass fitter, then a stevedore. By his early thirties, the teetotaling Kennedy was a partner in three saloons, owner of two retail liquor stores, president of the Sumner Savings Bank, and founder of the Suffolk Coal Company, all of which afforded his wife, Mary Augusta, a life even more comfortable than the one she had grown up with as the daughter of a prosperous Irish-born contractor. She, in turn, pampered her four children—the baby, Margaret Louise, preceded by Mary Loretta, Francis Benedict, and Joseph Patrick.
Patrick charted a purposeful path for his first and favored child, Joe. Attending Catholic schools for his first six years gave Joe a grounding in his culture along with his faith. By grade seven, it was time for him to learn about the Brahmins who really ran things in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Theirs was a world of inherited fortunes where it was said that the Lowells talked only to the Cabots, while the Cabots talked only to God.
P.J. had begun to infiltrate that rarefied terrain but, like most hyphenated Americans, he had to defer the dream of true mastery to his son. For now, that meant enrolling Joe at Boston Latin, the country’s oldest and the city’s most rigorous public school, whose alumni included four Massachusetts governors and five signers of the Declaration of Independence. Young Joseph Kennedy did passably well there, but the faculty recommended he repeat his senior year if he hoped to get into Harvard College, which to Patrick was the point of his son’s being at Latin. Following his teachers’ advice, Joe stayed on. He was elected class president, reelected captain of the baseball team, and—despite three C’s, five D’s, and two F’s on his entrance exams—admitted to Harvard, with “conditions.”
Latin’s class of 1908 sent twenty-five students to Harvard, which was half of its graduates and more than any other secondary school anywhere. Few were as self-satisfied as the strapping redhead with freckled cheeks and searing blue eyes. Joe’s marks at college were sufficiently high to get him off probation but not nearly enough to get him onto the Dean’s List, though that meant less to him than finally making it as a backup on the baseball team. The Hasty Pudding took him in but not the tonier clubs such as the Porcellian, where legend had it that if members didn’t earn their first million by age forty, the club would give it to them. Just being at Harvard was a coup for the grandson of a potato farmer from County Wexford and the son of a saloonkeeper—but it wasn’t enough for Joe, who could rattle off the stigmata that limited his mobility in Harvard’s Protestant temple of traditionalism. He was Irish and Catholic. He had graduated from a public school, not a prep school. He neither came from inherited riches nor had quite enough of the nouveau kind. The only circumstance he could change was the last, and before graduation Joe and a friend launched a sightseeing bus business that netted them $5,000, or $126,000 in today’s dollars. Not bad for a summer job.
Joe’s school years set the formula for his career in business: Barrel through doors your dad opened; trust your instinct; never fully confide in anybody; use somebody else’s money; and snap up bargains others don’t, because they are either too shortsighted or too scrupulous. Barely a year after he graduated from Harvard, Boston newspapers were reporting on Joe’s takeover of the Columbia Trust Company in East Boston. At age twenty-five, he was the youngest bank president in America. (Less ink was given to how small the bank was, how Patrick had been a minority owner from the start, and how relatives and neighbors lent Joe the money to scoop up a controlling interest.) His next enterprise—helping run Bethlehem Steel’s shipyard outside Boston during World War I—netted fewer headlines but made Joe a useful friend in Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.
If phase one of his career might be titled “Father Knows Best,” the second chapter warrants an even simpler rubric: “Go Where the Money Is.” Joe bankrolled movie theaters, then films, in Hollywood when the motion picture business was desperate for cash in the mid-1920s, and he walked away with $5 million in profits and screen siren Gloria Swanson as his mistress. He was an astute speculator during the stock market’s most roaring ride ever, and he was one of the few investors canny enough to cash in before it crashed on the infamous Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929. With help from FDR’s son James, Joe wangled the rights to import Haig & Haig Scotch and other premium whiskies at the very moment Prohibition was ending in 1933 and a thirsty public was lining up at the bar. So what if he personally abhorred the stereotype of Irish booziness and never drank beyond moderation? This was a matter of money. He even lent William Randolph Hearst a hand in reorganizing his media empire in 1937. As for suspicions that he made his millions working the shady side of the street—raiding companies, short-selling stocks, and bootlegging—they seldom were raised in his presence or substantiated, in part because he was so cagey about his increasingly lucrative investments. Joe’s prototype was no longer his affable father, but the frosty Yankees who had blackballed him at Harvard.
Add in all his other deals, as Fortune magazine would in 1957, and Joe had amassed somewhere between $200 million and $400 million—enough to make him the wealthiest Irish American on earth. That same year The Saturday Evening Post estimated his stock market earnings alone at between $45 million and $700 million. Managing his estate, the Post added, was a full-time occupation for twenty-odd investment counselors, tax experts, and bookkeepers, all searching for safe havens for the payouts from Joe’s high-risk investments. Whatever the true size of his fortune, it was almost certainly enough, in today’s dollars, to make him a billionaire. As far back as the 1930s, just twenty years after graduating from Harvard, he had eclipsed the holdings of most members of the millionaires-by-forty Porcellian Club. For Joe, the best thing about being rich was that it freed him to pursue his true passion, public affairs, just as his father’s more modest earnings had liberated him to do so a generation before.
Joe Kennedy’s vision for himself and the world was substantially more audacious and unfiltered than P.J.’s. Joe meant to serve his country in a way that would make clear his standing in its highest echelons. His enabler was his friend from the shipyard days, now President Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1934 named Joe chairman of the newly minted Securities and Exchange Commission. Liberals howled, calling Kennedy a conniving capitalist whose appointment ensured that the agency would fail in its mission to rein in the out-of-control stock markets that had helped plunge the country into the Great Depression. FDR, however, grasped what they didn’t: Joe was one of the very few bulls of Wall Street who realized that the New Deal was the best deal they were going to get and accepted the necessity of its regulations. While Kennedy stayed in the job just fifteen months, that was long enough to prove the president right. An adept executive, Joe managed to sell his fellow denizens of big business on the new rules without watering down those standards. Time magazine, in a cover story on Joe shortly before he resigned, called his SEC “the most ably administered New Deal agency in Washington.” Joe delighted in that verdict, shared even by reporters who had railed against his appointment, although he had no illusions about why Roosevelt had named him: “He knew that I knew all the angles of trading . . . all the intricacies and trickeries of market manipulation.” FDR put it more succinctly: “Set a thief to catch a thief.”
Joe returned to his businesses after his stint at the SEC, but his days in the nation’s capital reinforced a lesson he had learned from his father and would pass on to his sons: Getting the plum jobs he itched for required scratching backs, New Deal or old. And so as FDR faced another election in 1936, fearing that his White House was perceived as antibusiness, Joe again set aside his doubts about big government and marshaled his clout with the business community on behalf of Roosevelt. “I have no political ambitions for myself or for my children,” he wrote disingenuously in a slim self-published book entitled I’m for Roosevelt that was widely distributed two months before the election. It derided the “unreasoning malicious ill-will displayed by the rich and powerful against our common leader,” and it argued—in this instance genuinely—that “the future happiness of America, which means to me the future happiness of my family, will best be served by the re-election of President Roosevelt.”