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The Kennedy Family and Classical Themes

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The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday's the beginning hour.

-From a poem by Robert Frost celebrating John Kennedy's inauguration

The administration of John Kennedy, America's 35th President, was often called the 'New Frontier' - a time of service and an unmistakable boldness in action. Kennedy famously summed it up in his 1961 inaugural address, calling for Americans to 'ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country'. This Presidency was something new and exciting, a time when power passed to a generation of Americans born in the 20th century from the mostly conservative, respectable Eisenhower class to the new generation. However, looking at the Kennedy family, one may not immediately think of the 20th century. The Kennedys had some of the same ideals and characteristics as an ancient Greek or Roman family - especially those considered to make up the elite.

John F Kennedy's brother, Robert Kennedy, often shows himself as the best example. After John Kennedy was shot, his brother Robert Kennedy was devastated. His religious faith was shaken. However, John's widow Jacqueline suggested that Robert read the works of Edith Hamilton. He read 'The Greek Way', and shortly after bought and read all of Edith Hamilton's books. He annotated the bits he liked, which paid off when he began sprinkling ancient quotes throughout most of his speeches. He also memorized passages and awkwardly recited them by heart at social gatherings1. They provided him with comfort, and he took to heart the words of Aeschylus, that 'pain and error have their purpose and their use: they are steps on the ladder of knowledge' and also the phrase 'in agony learn wisdom'. It is not surprising that when he made one of his greatest speeches, an extemporaneous one announcing the death of Martin Luther King, Jr to a crowd in Indianapolis, he included in his speech-

My favourite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: 'Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'2

At the end of his standard stump speech, RFK liked to quote Lord Tennyson's 'Ulysses'-

Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.


One of the more interesting facets of this comparison is that the Kennedys were, after all, a family. They went to weddings together, celebrated the same births and mourned the same passings. It would have to be an enormous coincidence if one family happened to have such strong personalities without some intervention. The patriarch, Joe Kennedy, raised his children with power in mind. His dinner table ended up producing three Senators, one of whom would become President and another of whom would become the Attorney General. In ancient times, you can see powerful families. Heracles3, after all, was a descendant of both Zeus and Perseus (who was also a descendant of Zeus, curiously enough) in mythology and Augustus was the grand-nephew of Caesar in Roman history.

A possibly interesting side note is the fact that a common ancient Greek idea was that with every generation, the children became less and less great or powerful. Joe Kennedy believed the opposite - he believed he had lost his chance at political power, and spent most of his time trying to help his children end up more powerful than he was. Compare this with Cronus, who swallowed all of his children after they were born, for fear that one would be able to overthrow him.

Though the great feats of the Kennedys didn't so much involve golden apples and slayings as they did elections, the Kennedys were no wimps. John Kennedy won plaudits for his bravery in saving his crew aboard the WWII boat PT-109. Joe Kennedy, Jr died after volunteering for a near-suicide mission, probably trying to outdo his brother's heroism. Robert Kennedy didn't see active service during the war, but won admiration for often reckless acts of bravery. Without prior training, he climbed a mountain named for his brother and thought nothing of swimming in piranha-infested water (though the fellow he had forced to swim and toss around a football with him in the water was a bit on edge). Eventually, through the reckless disregard of their safety (call it bravery if you like), John, Joe and Robert lost their lives.

In some ways another factor in the deaths of the Kennedy brothers was also hubris. None believed that they would meet their deaths the day they died - and rarely worried about dying. Robert Kennedy had an especially pronounced streak of fatalism. In the end, his fatalism may have, ironically, been his fatal flaw. He had a minimal amount of security around him in California. Was it bull-headed hubris or simply a belief that he'd go when he'd go? It's difficult to tell. Any student of classical mythology can tell you that hubris never worked out for the Greeks.

Power and betrayal were common themes in ancient times, and if you were a Kennedy, you were used to both. Most of the Kennedy men were powerful, and were always seeking more power. In fact, at various points all four of Joe Kennedy's sons considered running for the Presidency of the United States. Joe, Jr was supposed to carry on the family torch and become the first Catholic President, but he died before he could. Robert Kennedy eventually died while seeking the Democratic Nomination for the post. Ted Kennedy ran for President in 1980, but failed to get his party's nomination. John Kennedy was the most powerful of the bunch, actually becoming President in 1960. He, of course, embodied an unfortunate tendency to betray his wife persistently. Even pathologically. One of the great stories of power and betrayal in Greek Mythology is the story of the House of Atreus. Luckily, that brings us to...

Greek Tragedy

It's commonly said that the Kennedys are the closest thing America has ever had to royalty. Equally valid is the observation that this royal family may be the most tragic 'royal' family since the House of Atreus. This family was forever trapped in a cycle of sinning and punishment, after a terrible sin by their ancestor, Tantalus. Robert Kennedy liked to think of himself as Agamemnon. He might have just liked the romantic notion of being a glorious war hero (Agamemnon was one of the great heroes of the Trojan war), though he wasn't one. Perhaps the thought of considering himself Agamemnon was influenced by his pessimism and fatalism (Agamemnon was killed by his wife and her lover). There's something to this, though. Agamemnon's brother was Menelaus - a guy who was married to Helen, of Trojan War fame. RFK may have identified the beautiful Helen with Jacqueline Kennedy. He may also have recognized that both he and Agamemnon were forced to make unenviable decisions - both personally and professionally. Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice his daughter to appease the gods. Robert had to choose between doing what he believed was the right thing and the politically expedient thing constantly. He usually did what he believed was the right thing. Not always, but usually.

In a way, after JFK's death, Robert may have more resembled Telemachus at the beginning of the Odyssey. At that time, Odysseus (Telemachus' father) appears to be dead, and suitors move into the family's home to try to get his widow Penelope to marry them. On the surface, of course, this is nothing like what RFK went through. Look at it this way, though. When RFK lost JFK, he lost an older brother, a boss and a friend. Vice President Lyndon Johnson took the Presidency, and moved into the White House, with his offensive back-slapping conversation style and a whole gang of Texan friends4. The palace of JFK was taken over by these men (and incidentally, LBJ was something of a suitor to Jacqueline Kennedy - he tried to hit on her occasionally, much to her amusement) and he was displaced. He pulled back from the public eye, then thrust himself forward, and got himself elected to the US Senate... eventually attempting to take back his brother's throne by taking up the family torch and running for President in 1968.

1Bystanders would recall that he spoke in a completely flat voice without any poetic rhythm. He did not seem to notice this. Nor did he notice that randomly quoting Herodotus at a party was an odd thing to do.2He actually misquoted Aeschylus in several places, but since it was completely extemporaneous, it wasn't bad.3Known to the Romans as Hercules, by which name he tends to be known today.4RFK found back-slapping politics to be very offensive and just plain hated LBJ.

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