DAVIS, Calif. (U-WIRE) — Joseph Kennedy Sr., capitalist extraordinaire and father of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was refused admission to Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club. This infuriated the up-and-coming Catholic lad to an extent that would impact the next century of American history.
How could being denied from some effete-elite dinner group at some Ivy League school affect so many lives? I mean, wouldn’t you think Joey would just go back to the dorm and forget about it after a few weeks?
No. This denial meant that Joe was not in the exclusive, top-drawer, externally validated realm of a cappella academia. It meant that he couldn’t run with the thoroughbreds. Not being Hasty Pudding material was an albatross — his glass ceiling that he would shatter if it killed him.
Joe lived out the rest of his days fueled by spite. He didn’t lovingly create a family; he spawned future senators, treating Rose Kennedy like a brood mare. Hell, all of his boys could have been president, if Joe Jr. hadn’t blown up his plane and if Bobby hadn’t gotten whacked and if Teddy weren’t a hopelessly depraved booze hound.
Can you imagine a childhood where no lower office was expected of you than the freaking presidency? It’s one thing to have all A’s and varsity letters as the family standard, but how warped would your dad have to be to foist the Oval Office upon you?
I guarantee you that Joe Sr. was — at least on some level — thinking, “I’ll show those bastards who’s not Hasty Pudding club material. I’ll put my heir or my spare on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and then we’ll see how all the WASPs shudder at a big-wheel Catholic.”
Joe needed a kid in the White House. And he needed a big house, a compound, for himself. And he needed to bang Gloria Swanson, the Uma Thurman of the early Hollywood. And he needed lots of cash, big titles, prestige.
But at what cost? Three of his four boys wound up in boxes prematurely. A good portion of his money was swallowed by his children and his children’s children, many of whom turned out to be strung-out swine. These were kids who were taught that not being the best was to be a failure. Thus, when they weren’t the best, they gave up entirely.
And Joe never found what he was looking for: comfort in his own skin.
There is no amount of money that can buy that. No lavish honors will bestow it. No accomplishment of progeny can backdate it. Even if Joe had been a Hasty boy, he’d probably only have been comfortable in the preppie jacket, not in the shower.
It’s an odd, horrible existence to make your life a constant manipulation of your own image. Plaster your wall with plaques, put a bunch of initials after your name and constantly say, “Do you know who I am?” as if you don’t even know yourself. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. It makes for parents who scream at their children during little league and families that can’t talk about anything more controversial than the weather.
So, what do you need to be comfortable in the shower? You need to be at ease with the fact that you aren’t always going to be the fastest pony, the brainiest kid, or the slickest single. We all have our gifts — some more than others — and that’s life. You can share them, or you can build walls.
Joe built his walls pretty high and he was pretty secure for a while. But after he stroked out, after all his enemies had been thoroughly embarrassed, after he’d laid all the movie stars, all he had were some nurses and sedatives. John was under Arlington after a botched autopsy. Rose was in Europe with younger men on Joe’s nickel. Lyndon Baines Johnson gave way to Richard Milhous Nixon and neither would pull out of Vietnam for fear of being labeled the first U.S. president to lose a war.
So what does all of this have to do with you?
Well, are you the type of person who simply must brag about how well you’re doing? I’m going to this school and have a job lined up with this group and drive this kind of car. Is life a constant one-upmanship, a name-dropping game and a bluffing orgy?
Do you demand respect, only to have people defame you in private?
Let’s refine the raw drive of the Kennedy clan into a healthy aspiration. We should all go to school, bump up the GPA and shoot for the 40 percent tax bracket. We should all chop out a niche, not to show everyone how big our axe is to grind, but to give ourselves a good place in this world. And how good can any place be if you had to burn a lot of bridges to get there?
Prestige is nice. It is a reputation to fall back on when your game is off, but it means little when you get down to brass tacks. Your kids won’t care what you’re the president of and your buddies don’t want to know about your stock options.
The best prestige is a by-product, not a goal. Remember that, and your children just might not wind up being senators.
Fred Houts’ column originally appeared in Wednesday’s University of California-Davis Aggie.