UPDATE: Joe Kennedy wasn’t a rum-runner

Daniel Okrent reports that there’s no evidence at all to support the persistent rumor. Chalk it up to the unprincipled persistence of the right wing in trashing its opponents by every means, fair or foul.

Most fascinating bit (against tough competition) in Daniel Okrent’s Last Call (of which the Ken Burns mini-series Prohibition is more or less the film version):  there’s no contemporary authority for the stories about Joseph Kennedy, Sr.,  as a rum-runner, and the question certainly would have arisen when FDR nominated him to run the SEC. I’m embarrassed to have been taken in for so long. In discussing the origins of Kennedy’s gangster image, Okrent leaves out what seems to me the most salient fact:  the desperate desire of the right wing to tarnish the image of JFK, which they properly regard as an important Democratic asset.

Footnote While Ronald Reagan was alive but debilitated, and for some time after his death, decency required a certain amount of tact about his manifold flaws. That helped the plutocrat-and-racist coalition set him up as a sort of secular saint. I don’t at all wish that the Democrats were as mendacious as the Republicans, but I do wish that we were a little bit tougher. It’s probably too late to restore the original name of the George Washington National Airport, but not to remind the country about how the Reagan White House turned a blind eye to the Contras’ cocaine dealing.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

13 thoughts on “UPDATE: Joe Kennedy wasn’t a rum-runner”

  1. the desperate desire of the right wing to tarnish the image of JFK, which they properly regard as an important Democratic asset.

    It’s not clear exactly why, as progressives, we would want to champion the image of a rich man who cut taxes on the wealthy, ran to the right of Nixon on foreign policy, and damn near blew up the world. Not to mention that his most famous line (“Ask not…”) is a direct contravention of the Declaration of Independence, which stipulates that governments exist to serve the people, not the other way around.

    Honestly, getting his head blown off in Dallas was the best service JFK ever did for liberal causes. It was LBJ who was really responsible for most of the achievements that JFK is credited for in popular culture.

    1. I am with you up until your “Ask not…” claim. The D of I certainly says the government is there to serve the people, but JFK asked us to ask what we could do for our country NOT the government. If we dig deeper into JFk’s philosophy vis a viz the relationship of the government, the country and the people maybe for him it was a distinction without a difference, but for me it is a deeply important distinction. The government is not synonymous with the country or vice versa. I can serve my country, indeed may serve it best, when I work against a specific government. Mostly, though, my service to country and community is tangential and at times irrelevant to the government.

  2. Thanks to Josh for illustrating my point. Of course any actual human being has praiseworthy and blameworthy features. The impulse of progressives is to trash their potential heroes, while reactionaries worship theirs. I share his enthusiasm for LBJ, and JFK was far from flawless, but there’s something to be said for having brought an entire generation of enthusiastic people into public service.

    Oh, and for fixing the Eisenhower/Dulles policies that actually had a pretty good chance of blowing up the planet.

  3. The airport was never named “George Washington National Airport.” It was Washington National Airport. The city, not the president.

    1. It was never called “George Washington National Airport.” But that was in fact its official name. I learned that from Tom Schelling, who spent part of his childhood in DC as a Navy brat.

      1. “The name of the song is called “haddocks’ eyes” ”
        – The White Knight in Alice Threough the Looking Glass.

  4. The Kennedys were a pretty big blight on American politics and American liberalism, with the post-Chappaquiddick career of Ted Kennedy being a somewhat honorable partial exception.

    And Joe Kennedy, specifically, was bad enough. He was associated with Frank Costello (just as his son the President would be associated with Mafia figures), lobotomized his own daughter to stop her from being sexually promiscuous (something he apparently did not see as a flaw in himself or his sons), cheated the stock market and engaged in insider trading, used his connections to import large amounts of LEGAL booze right at the time Prohibition was lifted (which, I must make clear, is a different matter from the false charge of bootlegging), and was an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer.

    I think it’s great that the cancer that is the Kennedys has finally been basically removed from American politics. It took a long time.

  5. – “Oh, and for fixing the Eisenhower/Dulles policies that actually had a pretty good chance of blowing up the planet.”!?

    A strange thing to say about an Administration most well known for the Cuban Missile Crisis and sending 17,000 American soldiers into Vietnam. Or maybe not so strange when the main point of the post seems to be admiration for telling half-truths (or maybe less than half) about partisan opponents.

  6. “Oh, and for fixing the Eisenhower/Dulles policies that actually had a pretty good chance of blowing up the planet.”!?

    Fix? Well, the Kennedy administration changed the policy to “flexible response” a chimera that most likely would have immediately fallen apart in the high pressured sweat-storm event the that dreaded Red Army actually did surge into the Fulda Gap. But whatever. This, in turn, gave us the strange, but incredibly futile, fascination with highly trained small bands of heroic mercenaries who could perform miracles in the jungles of SE Asia….and if they couldn’t, why we’d just raise the stakes.

    This, in turn, was followed by Dickie Nixon, ‘pretending’ to be utterly deranged in order to bully the North Vietnamese into surrender.

    All of these policies are variations on a theme. None of them are intrinsically better than the other….because, given a determined foe, they all wind up in the same place: Nuclear annihilation.

  7. 1. It’s probably too late to restore the original name of the George Washington National Airport, but not to remind the country about how the Reagan White House turned a blind eye to the Contras’ cocaine dealing.

    More discussion about the role of the Contras in drug-dealing, and how much the White House knew about that, might be good. By making it more open it would discourage people from thinking about the support of the Contras as part of a conspiracy to direct the importation of drugs into the US to debilitate African-Americans. But maybe not.

    2. Anyway, criticizing your political opponents is different from lionizing your own preferred politicians.

  8. Not just drug trafficking, but more seriously, according to the International Court of Justice: “Those incidents that have been investigated, however, reveal a distinct pattern, indicating that contra activities often include: attacks on purely civilian targets resulting in the killing of unarmed men, women, children, and the elderly; premeditated acts of brutality including rape, beatings, mutilation and torture; individual and mass kidnappings of civilians … for the purpose of forced recruitment into the contra forces and the creation of a hostage refugee population in Honduras; assaults on economic and social targets …”

  9. Why is it too late to rename the airport? The only thing standing in the way of that is Democrats! And while they are at it they should rename the department of justice for RFK. This is the kind of things that republicans do all the time and democrats just don’t see what effective symbolism it is. Actually, they don’t seem to get symbolism at all.

  10. I didn’t think there was much doubt that Joe Kennedy financed and made money from liquor import during Prohibition. While I can’t point to an original source, Gus Russo’s book “The Outfit” is a well sourced history of the Chicago Mob and contains extensive references to Joe Kennedy’s dealings with the Outfit. In fact much of the Outfit was reluctant to support John Kennedy for President because their experience with Joe was that he was entirely untrustworthy. FWIW, Joe Kennedy appears in the book as part of the history and not as an effort to trash the Kennedys. Russo notes mob connections with other Presidents as well, some pretty surprising.

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