The Kennedy family romance

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The ambiguous role of the Kennedy family in the history of modern liberalism is inseparable from the ambiguous role of the family as an institution in American culture. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the family has become the ideal U.S. citizen in the last half century. And while that achievement has been due largely to the late arrival of Evangelicals onto the political stage, it would be a mistake to imagine that defenders of secular and liberal values have not done their part in advancing the family as a rights-bearing subject. At the risk of confounding the issue beyond interpretive headway, we might even say that the hallmark of modern liberalism itself is its equivocal position between advancing social justice within institutional frameworks and advancing the business as usual of those frameworks as such. And we might add that the Kennedy family, with its bottomless coffers and sense of mission, a commitment scarcely distinct from paternalism, has embodied just this conflicted status in the post-1945 world. That the Kennedy name, now synonymous with liberalism, once signified a red-baiting jingoism and a lukewarm approach to civil rights testifies as much to the leftward shift of the Kennedy compound as to the rightward shift of American culture. It is a tribute to its by now largely symbolic stature that the Kennedys have succeeded in recasting liberalism in their own name and image – which is to say, a liberalism of image, and perhaps in name only. Given the truism that governance is the business of compromise, it is fitting that the First Family of American politics has proved such a shrewd handler of its own frequently compromised identity. The Kennedy family is a novel blend of private sanctum and publicly traded company, both a bourgeois haven in a heartless world and a royal house. If the Kennedy family has become the most recognizable brand in modern politics, it is safe to say that John F. Kennedy, more so than his kingmaker paterfamilias, was that brand's creator.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to John F. Kennedy
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781107256699
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (all)


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