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Grandpa believed in hard work, despised shams, and loved the truth
Then he goaded his children into lively disputes to satisfy himself that they had both brains and backbone.
Then he goaded his children into lively disputes to satisfy himself that they had both brains and backbone. Screengrab

Grandpa had a fierce sense of family, taking great interest in all his children’s activities and encouraging their engagement with the world. The dinner table was a forum for discussion and sometimes heated debate.

Prior to supper he gave his children research assignments—Algerian independence, for example, or socialism. Then he goaded his children into lively disputes to satisfy himself that they had both brains and backbone.

Uncle Jack’s best friend, Lem Billings, a frequent visitor at the house, told me how Grandpa often took extreme positions to incite his offspring—boys and girls—to argue and defend their points of view.

Describing those dinner table dialectics, my dad wrote about Grandpa, “My father has believed we could think and decide things for ourselves.... There were disagreements, sometimes violent, on politics, economics, the future of the country, the world.” Grandpa wanted his children’s minds unshackled by ideology.

He groomed them to question authority, and to be beholden to nothing but the enlightened open minds God gave them.

Even as youngsters he sent his children on trips to learn from teachers or political leaders whose views clashed with his own. To broaden their perspectives, he sent both Jack and Joe to study under the socialist philosopher Harold Laski at the London School of Economics, even though, according to Lem Billings, Grandpa considered Laski a “screwball.”

Joe returned enthused by Laski’s left-wing worldview, which informed his dinner table advocacy for the merits of communism, until he crossed his father’s pain threshold. “I don’t want to hear any more on that subject,” my fuming grandpa told him, “until you’ve sold your sailboat and car and donated the proceeds to the proletariat.”

Grandpa sent my father and Kick and Joe to the Soviet Union, and Uncle Joe visited Fascist Spain to chronicle its civil war. Grandpa sent Jack to Spain, Italy, and Germany, and my father went to Czechoslovakia following its fall to communists.

Grandpa also encouraged my father to attend lectures by the popular fascist priest Father Feeney, and applauded my dad’s willingness to debate the charismatic cleric.

Grandpa was as interested in the intellectual development of his girls as he was of his boys. “While many fathers at the time pushed their daughters to land husbands, Grandpa insisted his daughters find jobs,” Eunice recalled, and this, no doubt, explains why all the Kennedy girls married relatively late.

Eunice tied the knot at thirty-two. After college she got a job in the State Department, assisting returning POWs, then moved to the Justice Department. For a time she worked undercover, investigating corruption in a West Virginia prison, where her fellow inmates included Tokyo Rose and the gun moll of Machine Gun Kelly.

My Aunt Pat, who had a gift for figures, went to Wall Street, to work for an investment firm, and then to Catholic Relief Services.

Concerned lest they join the idle rich, Grandpa encouraged his children to experience the wide world without regard for comfort. He hoped they would learn to appreciate the value of money without coveting it. He himself was generous to the Church, to people in need, and to his staff.

When his employee Bill Sullivan at RKO died suddenly, Grandpa paid Bill’s widow his full salary for the rest of her days. But when it came to his children, Grandpa considered austerity a virtue.

He wanted his children to benefit from the best schools, teachers, and training, but without any special privileges. Uncle Teddy recalled, “He wanted us to have a good time, but never a frivolous one.

Ski, fine, but why do you have to go to Europe to do it? Enjoy a restaurant, but stay out of the nightclubs. . . .” When Uncle Joe wrote Grandpa from England that he had developed an interest in racing yachts, Grandpa replied sternly that he would “much prefer you to study and travel until time to return home.”

According to my mother, Grandpa rode Teddy the hardest. While his elder brothers were all involved in serious endeavors, fun-loving Teddy felt the tug of the playboy lifestyle.

My mother recalls Grandpa yelling at Teddy, “No son of mine is going to play polo!” Grandpa cautioned in a brief missive: “Dear Teddy, If you’re going to make the political columns, let’s stay out of the gossip columns. Love, Dad.”

When Grandpa somehow learned that Teddy, then at Harvard, had a horn on his car that bellowed like a mournful cow, he addressed the matter in another letter.

“I don’t want to be complaining about things you do, but I want to point out to you that when you exercise any privilege that the ordinary fellow does not avail himself of, you immediately become the target for display and for newspaper criticism. It’s all right to struggle to get ahead of the masses by good works, by good reputation, and by hard work, but it certainly isn’t by doing things that people could say, ‘Who the Hell does he think he is?’

While he was toughest on Teddy, Grandpa had a special soft spot for Aunt Pat. Pat was Grandpa’s favorite; she was beautiful, loved Hollywood as he did, and had the best head in the family for money. She sat beside him at meals, and she was always able to make him laugh.

Grandpa believed in hard work, despised shams, and loved the truth. He stood up for the underdog and believed in giving people a second chance.

When West Point expelled some hundred cadets for violating the honor code, he arranged with Notre Dame’s president, Father John Cavanaugh, that any expelled cadet who chose to attend Notre Dame could do so at Grandpa’s expense.

His sense of propriety was so strong that it even eclipsed his inclination toward personal loyalty. When a relative by marriage told Grandpa that he had been retained to appear before the SEC on behalf of a client, Grandpa told him firmly, “Get out of the Commission and never come back.”

When Danny Kaye, an actor whom Grandpa much admired, asked him to use his influence to obtain a draft deferment, Grandpa ejected him from his office.”

Excerpt From: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. “American Values.”

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