The Last Patrician by Michael Knox Beran
St. Martin's Press, $23.95
Review by L.D. Meagher
Web posted on: Thursday, May 21, 1998 4:34:04 PM EDT
(CNN) -- Imagine Bobby Kennedy in the role of John the Baptist, setting the political stage for the coming of Ronald Reagan.
That is the improbable scenario offered by Michael Knox Beran in "The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy."
The book is an attempt to chronicle the evolution of Kennedy's political thought as viewed through the lens of the 30 years that have passed since his death. Beran argues that by the time of his 1968 campaign for president, Bobby Kennedy had broken with the political orthodoxy of his day, and was prepared to embrace the philosophical underpinnings of what later came to be called the Reagan Revolution.
"The Last Patrician" is not a biography in the usual sense. The author spends little time examining the events in the life of Robert F. Kennedy. Instead, Beran focuses on what he sees as the grand sweep of American political philosophy that, he believes, shaped Kennedy's career. It can be argued that the central character in the book is not Bobby Kennedy, but Henry L. Stimson.
Stimson may be best remembered as U.S. Secretary of War during World War II. His career in government service spanned more than 30 years. He was Secretary of War under William Howard Taft, Secretary of State under Herbert Hoover, and Governor General of the Philippines under Calvin Coolidge. To Beran, Stimson is the archetype of "the American aristocracy."
He argues that by the late 19th century, an identifiable "governing class" had emerged. Sons of wealthy families chose to pursue careers in government and diplomacy, rather than pursuing wealth. By the early 20th century, Beran suggests, this governing class dominated American affairs of state. "These patrician statesmen," he writes, "were the architects of the 20th-century welfare and administrative state; after World War II they helped to construct the 20th-century national security state."
The roster of what Beran calls "the Stimsonians" includes Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, several Rockefellers, Averell Harriman, columnist Joseph Alsop, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and his father, and virtually all the "dollar-a-year" men who surrounded FDR during the New Deal. The roster decidedly did not include the Kennedys.
The Stimsonians may have had different partisan allegiances, but Beran says they held the same political philosophy. In domestic affairs, he says, they believed government could best solve society's problems, the bigger the government the better. In international affairs, they subscribed to the notion of an American Empire that would bestow the blessings of liberty around the world.
Joseph Kennedy, who amassed his fortune in the open markets, aspired to become part of the governing class. He even pursued a career in public service. (Beran says that during his stint at the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Joseph Kennedy was a "traitor to his class," meaning not the patrician class, but the class of entrepreneurs.) But the old-money clubs of Boston never accepted him.
The younger Kennedys succeeded where their father failed. They went to the same prep schools and universities, sailed in the same regattas and moved in the same social circles as the younger members of the patrician class. It is there, Beran believes, that the Kennedys absorbed the political philosophy of the Stimsonians.
By the time Jack Kennedy was elected to the Senate and Bobby was working as an investigator for Joseph McCarthy's subcommittee, both had established themselves as firm believers in the Stimsonian model of government. The very patricians who had rejected their father embraced them.
Beran argues that the Kennedy presidency was a model of Stimsonian governance. President Kennedy surrounded himself with scions of prestigious families, and urged them to find government solutions to domestic problems and to expand the American Empire. As attorney general, Bobby Kennedy was in the midst of the sinners.
Things began to change after his brother's death. The assassination drove Bobby into a period of intense retrospection. He began to read the poetry of ancient Greece, and became interested in the Greek republic. There, Beran asserts, he found the inspiration to question the political assumptions he had accepted his entire life. He gained a new perspective on the relationship between the citizen and the city-state. It is from this moment that Beran charts Bobby Kennedy's rebellion against the Stimsonians.
In 1966, while serving in the Senate, Bobby began to formulate a different approach to the problems of poverty. He launched the Bedford Stuyvesant redevelopment project to provide a practical example of his approach. It was a marriage of the public sector with the private.
Beran argues that the exclusion of businesses from Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program was one of the reasons for its ultimate failure. Moreover, Bobby insisted that the people who lived there, not the government, or big corporations, or major philanthropic foundations that were expected to contribute, control the Bedford Stuyvesant project.
Beran asserts that the redevelopment project set Bobby Kennedy firmly on the path to a rejection of the entire Stimsonian approach to government. Within months, he was challenging the assumptions of the Great Society welfare programs, and even arguing that the war in Vietnam was a bad idea. The notions of governmental solutions to societal problems, and of an ever-expanding American Empire, were under attack from one of their most fervent proponents, Beran says. At last, Kennedy was on the side of the saints.
Then he died.
The elaborate intellectual tapestry Beran weaves around the life of Bobby Kennedy is intriguing, but it feels flimsy. He decries the "welfare state" that grew out of the New Deal, but he doesn't address the Great Depression, or how it changed the political, social and economic landscape. He has a similar blind spot toward the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s. He dismisses in a few lines the role of racism in exacerbating the decline of the American inner city.
And yet, he finds time to ruminate on Marilyn Monroe and the Alger Hiss case. Scant attention is paid to the civil rights movement. Bobby's relationship with leaders of the anti-war movement of the '60s is swept aside as an exercise in "radical chic," akin to his chat with members of the rock band Jefferson Airplane. Beran constructs an elaborate metaphor from "The Great Gatsby," but he offers no insights on Bobby's relationship with Joseph McCarthy, which other biographers have found to be one of the most fascinating episodes in his life.
"The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy" ultimately fails to be very convincing. It assumes Kennedy's political philosophy developed independent of his own life experiences. Then it tries to fit his actions during his final years into a political pattern that emerged after his death.
The central argument of the book is undermined by the author's own recitation of the contradictions in Kennedy's positions at the end of his life:
"In the same year in which he criticized the welfare state, he condemned President Johnson for failing to fund it adequately. He pointed out the shortcomings of the federal bureaucracy, and promptly called for its expansion. He praised private enterprise as the essential foundation of the country's greatness, and condemned businessmen and corporations as the disciples of Mammon. He celebrated the virtues of the free market, and denounced the cult of the GNP."
Beran sees these contradictions as evidence of an emerging conservatism. Might they instead be evidence that Kennedy still embraced his slain brother's agenda, but challenged the methods his successor used to put it into action? By choosing to focus on the broad sweep of American political thought, the author may have missed the smaller, but more important developments in Kennedy's life that shaped his political thought.
Beran attempts to view Bobby Kennedy through the lens of recent history. Perhaps he is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
L.D. Meagher is a News Editor at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for nearly 30 years.
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