The Irish Brotherhood book with photo of Kennedy brothers

            I have been fascinated by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis since I was a young girl.  This fascination at times has spilled over on other members of her family, including the president.  Yet even I wonder if there is anything new to say about the Kennedy Family, especially the charmed threesome of John, Robert and Jackie.  In penning The Irish Brotherhood, Helen O’Donnell has shown us that there is a most interest aspect of the late president’s political life that has received short shrift. 
           John F. Kennedy’s rise to the presidency of the United States seemed–then and now–nigh impossible.  After all, he eschewed the traditional Massachusetts paths to political power having never been elected  mayor of Boston, as was his late grandfather, John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald; nor did he run for governor. His record in the United States Congress was thin at best.  As a student, he spent a lot more time making mischief than studying. Even his war heroics have been questioned, with some suggesting that the destruction of the PT boat Kennedy and his men were in was do to his carelessness, and he was lucky that things turned out as well as they did.  And yet this young, Irish, Catholic upstart ended up as leader of the free world and continues to have an undeniable hold on this nation more than fifty years after his death.  That he succeeded in winning the presidency  is due largely in part, according to Helen O’Donnell, to the tough, talented and ambitious Irish men who made up his inner circle.  The leader of that circle was Kenny O’Donnell, first a friend of Robert Kennedy and the father of Helen O’Donnell.
            The men in JFK’s so called Irish Mafia may have been who the president had in mind when he said in his inaugural address “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.” The brothers Kennedy, O’Donnell, Larry O’Brien and Dave Powers were Irish to the core and proud of it.  The discrimination faced by the Irish infuriated them, and it fueled their impatience and ambition.  The men loved politics, football, but most of all, they loved JFK.  Kennedy was also able to inspire an intense loyalty in these men and to convince them that  their efforts mattered. To them, he was special in a way that more than half a century later people still have difficulty explaining.
            In spite of all that has been written about JFK’s cool detachment, O’Donnell shows us that he loved politics too–its rough and tumble nature, the deal making, the delegate counting, but mostly the idea that it was a prime vehicle for changing the world.  He, too, felt impatient to put his stamp on an America he thought mired in the past.
            Although some of what is covered in The Irish Brotherhood is well trod ground, the book succeeds on several fronts.  First, O’Donnell has tapes made by her father who was interviewed by former NBC White House correspondent Sander Vanocur.  The Irish Brotherhood is largely based on those interviews, and they give the book its chatty tone.  (I found it hard to get used to her referring to the men as Jack or Bobby or Kenny.)  Second, it plunges us back into a time before technology.  There were no twenty-four-hour news cycles, FAX machines, cell phones and plenty of newspapers.  Television was in its infancy, and O’Donnell joins the scores  of other politicians, journalists and professors who say that Jack Kennedy was the first politician who recognized and harnessed the nascent power of the medium.  Third, she reminds us of just how difficult it was for a Catholic to be elected to nationwide office.  However, in light of the racist vitriol aimed at President Barack Obama, the prejudice against Catholics seems positively quaint.
            There are also some dandy surprises in The Irish Brotherhood. The Kennedy brothers were not puppets of their demanding father.  The love and respect they had for him and the wa in which the patriarch trusted and inspired those who worked for his son humanizes the elder Kennedy.  Jack Kennedy’s precarious health and its impact on his political ambitions is seen through the unique lens of those closest to him.  Few have ever known how close he was to giving it all up.  Jacqueline Kennedy–“Madame La Femme” as Kenny O’Donnell called her–comes off as smart and tough as her husband.  And unlike in other books about the 1960 presidential election, we see how the “vaunted Kennedy machine” sometimes screwed up and the amusing consequences. 
            The Irish Brotherhood is the missing link in the explanation of JFK’s  rise to political prominence, and a great corrective to the hagiography of Theodore White’s The Making of the Presidency 1960.  It’s worth reading.