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Saturday, 25 April 2020 23:28

The House of Kennedy, by James Patterson and Cynthia Fagen

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Jim DiEugenio assesses the historical accuracy of James Patterson and Cynthia Fagen’s The House of Kennedy and discovers the shoddy research and tabloid style of the book make it unfit for reading. Their idea is to present the Kennedy clan as a bunch of useless wastrels, whose two most prominent political representatives were murdered by lone nuts. Therefore, their implication is that these murders have no political or historic importance.


There is no reason for anyone to read this book. On the other hand, there are a lot of reasons not to read it. In its own way, the James Patterson/Cynthia Fagen book, The House of Kennedy, redefines the rubric “hatchet job.”

This volume portrays itself as telling the entire story of the Kennedy clan from two generations before Joseph P. Kennedy, to the death of John Kennedy Jr. in a plane accident in 1999. It is hard to believe that Patterson, who at least started his career as a detective novelist and has written dozens of those kinds of books, actually wrote and researched it, or even designed it. I write that for two reasons. As many people know, Patterson has become so incredibly successful as a writer that he really does not have to write anything anymore. He sells more books than Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined. In fact, the inside joke in the industry is that Patterson can write two novels in 12 hours. Based on that kind of information, I would be willing to guess that the TV producer and print journalist Fagen probably did most of the work on the book. From what I could garner, she worked on Inside Edition, Bill O’Reilly’s old program, and she wrote for the New York Post. The Post is owned by Rupert Murdoch and it is a tabloid. If one recalls, during the Jeff Bezos divorce scandal, it ran the infamous front-page headline “Bezos Exposes Pecker”. Referring, of course, to The National Enquirer’s David Pecker’s role in catching Bezos cheating on his wife.

The House of Kennedy is written at about the New York Post tabloid level. When an author writes a non-fiction group biography that is supposed to tell the story of an entire clan, each chapter needs to be guided architecturally, in order to create some kind of narrative arc. To be mild, that does not happen here. For all the planning and design in The House of Kennedy,,it might have been clipped from a series of New York Post articles. And that does not include the clumsy composition and graceless writing.

Yet that is only the beginning of the problems with this weak excuse for a book. Although it spends time on the assassinations of both President John Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy, you will learn next to nothing about how each of those two men died. And, in fact, what you will read about those matters is sometimes false in its own terms. That is, Fagen and Patterson abide by the official stories in both cases, but at times they go beyond that, in order to hammer home their verdicts that both Lee Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan acted alone.

But before we get to that part of the book’s utter failure, let us deal with the three main biographies contained within the covers of the book. Those would be Joseph P. Kennedy and his two sons, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. If you want to learn anything about those three men, you won’t in this book. For the simple reason that I could find no original research in it. For example, in David Nasaw’s biography of Joseph Kennedy, The Patriarch, one will learn—in extraordinary detail—how Joe Kennedy built his enormous fortune, especially how he made millions in the film business through distribution deals and the fact that his success made him much in demand as an executive. He was an executive who could request and receive both a large salary and stock options. Nasaw was very specific about which companies hired Kennedy and what his salary and option plans were. Also, he was allowed to run one company, while investing in other film companies. There is next to none of that in The House of Kennedy. Nasaw also found evidence that countered the recurrent charge that Joe Kennedy was some kind of rabid anti-Semite. Well, you won’t find that here either. This book does not deal in the creation of three-dimensional character portraits. Not even two dimensional. Every person described comes out like a cardboard cut out used as a stage prop.

But Joe Kennedy is just where this book gets started. The section on John Kennedy is the longest and, in my view, probably the worst. How can anyone today write any kind of sustained narrative about John F. Kennedy without bringing up the topic of Vietnam? I would have thought that impossible. Even Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had to deal with the subject in their crushingly disappointing PBS mini-series on the subject. They had to for the simple reason that Congressman Kennedy visited Vietnam in 1951 and that visit had a strong impact on not just his view of the French Indochina conflict, but his perspective on the Third World in general.

The House of Kennedy does something I would have thought no writer, or team of writers, could possibly do in 2020. In the long section dealing with JFK, I detected not even the mention of the Vietnam conflict. This is astonishing—for two reasons. First, there have been many important documents released by the National Archives that help define President Kennedy’s intentions and policies in Vietnam. If the authors did not want to read those documents—and it’s pretty clear whoever the team was behind this product did not—then there were books based on those documents that one could consult. Patterson and Fagen did not do that either.

Here is my question: how on earth can anyone write any kind of biography of John Kennedy, or description of his presidency, and leave that subject out? That leads to my second reason as to why this is hard to fathom, because under Kennedy’s successors—Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon—that war escalated beyond recognition and it expanded from Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia. And if one goes by the most current estimates, that Johnson/Nixon escalation and expansion took the lives of close to 6 million people—about 3.8 million in Vietnam, and about 2 million in Cambodia. (See the June, 2008 British Medical Journal study by Zaid Obermeyer for the former, see this link for the latter). The fact that this book ignores all this, I believe that tells us a lot about what its agenda was from the start.

But what is remarkable about The House of Kennedy is this: except for the appearance of Senator John Kennedy with his brother Robert on the McClellan Committee—commonly referred to as the Rackets Committee—you will not learn anything about what Jack Kennedy did in his 14-year congressional career in this book. That is quite a negative achievement, because author John T. Shaw wrote an entire book about that subject. Although Shaw’s book is called JFK in the Senate, the book covers his house years also. Shaw came to the conclusion that Kennedy’s most important achievement on Capitol Hill was his forging of a new foreign policy toward countries emerging from the bonds of European colonialism. This policy grew directly out of Kennedy’s opposition to what had come before him in the form of both the administrations of Harry Truman and Dean Acheson and that of Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles. (See Shaw’s book, page 110)

As everyone who studies that record comprehends, the great schism between Senator Kennedy and Eisenhower/Dulles came in the form of Kennedy’s famous Algeria speech of 1957. In that speech, the senator denounced the Eisenhower administration’s inability to break away from loyalty to France in the colonial war then taking place on the north coast of Africa. (Shaw, p. 101) Kennedy said that the White House did not seem to understand that what was going to happen in Algeria was a reprise of what had just happened in 1954 at the siege of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. That is a resounding French defeat, with the USA on the wrong side of history again. Senator Kennedy said that the American objective should be to free Africa and save the French nation, which was coming apart over this war. (See, The Strategy of Peace, edited by Allan Nevins, pp. 66-80) Are we to presume that Patterson and Fagen never heard of the most famous speech Kennedy ever gave in the senate, one that provoked comment—most of it negative—from literally scores of newspapers throughout the country? (For a review of the Shaw book, click here)

If the reader can believe it, this methodology continues into JFK’s presidency. There is very little discussion of what President Kennedy tried to achieve or what he did achieve. You will not read anything about Kennedy’s stand against the steel companies, his attempt to get Medicare through congress, the signing of the Manpower Training Act, the forging of affirmative action, or Kennedy’s Aid to Education Act. (For a description of what Kennedy did achieve in office, click here). Again, are we to believe that a writer who has sold 300 million books and a publisher as large at Little, Brown could not perform the most perfunctory kind of research as this?

And when Patterson and Fagen do try to describe one of President Kennedy’s policies, as with Cuba, they get it wrong. In fact, their description of the Bay of Pigs invasion is so bad its risible. They say that the master plan was to attack Castro while he was lounging at a beach, follow this with an air strike, and then culminate with an amphibious invasion. (Patterson and Fagen, p. 95) To be kind, this is not what the final plan entailed. As anyone can figure through any number of books that have been published on the subject, the final plan consisted of preliminary air strikes against Castro’s Air Force, followed by a diversionary amphibious attack, culminating with a real landing at the Bay of Pigs. And contrary to what this book says, it did not all end in one day. (ibid, p. 97) The actual conflagration went on for three days, but the back of the invasion was defeated in about 36 hours. (Peter Kornbluh, Bay of Pigs Declassified, pp. 307-19)

Our Dynamic Duo of Patterson and Fagen want to include President Kennedy in some kind of plot to kill Castro as part of the invasion. This was not part of the invasion plan and nothing has ever been declassified that says it was. Patterson and Fagen also want to include the myth of the cancelled D-Day air strikes—that is an air attack on the morning of the invasion—as part of the book. (op. cit. p. 97) Again, the declassified files reveal this to be false. Kennedy only permitted these strikes from a strip secured on the island. Since no beachhead ever secured that strip, this is why they did not occur. (Kornbluh, pp. 125-27)

By now, the reader understands what kind of book this is. So, predictably, it also includes the Judith Exner tall tale story from People Weekly in 1988. That, somehow, Exner was a go between for President Kennedy and Mafia Don Sam Giancana to arrange both the Castro assassination plots and to swing elections, e.g. the 1960 West Virginia primary. That particular story has been discredited in so many different ways that its inclusion contributes to the unintentional humor of this book. First of all, although the references in the book attribute that Exner article in People to Kitty Kelley, this is not accurate. According to author George Caprozi in his biography of Kelley called Poison Pen, she did not write the article. The editors at Time/Life did. Kelly and Exner did not get along, so in order to salvage their sizeable monetary investment, the story was manufactured in New York. Second, most authors—except Patterson and Fagen—realize today that Exner should not be taken seriously. By the time of her death in 1999, she had simply told too many different versions of her ever expanding tall tales, all of which differed from her original book, My Story. (Click here, for a good summary of her credibility problems)

Third, the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) declassified the CIA’s Internal Inspector General Report on the plots to kill Castro. That report dealt with whether or not the Agency had White House or Department of Justice approval for their outreach to the Mafia to kill the Cuban leader. That report concluded, in several places, that such was not the case. In fact, the report concluded that there was a deliberate attempt inside the CIA not to inform the White House or the Attorney General—Robert Kennedy—about the plots. (See pages 62, 64, 118, 130-32) Therefore, the factual basis for what the book is conveying is impugned.

The authors are so desperate to involve the Kennedys with unsavory characters, that they actually go ahead and use another discredited source: the novel produced by the late Chuck Giancana back in 1992. It was entitled Double Cross. (Patterson and Fagen, p. 85) The idea behind that earlier fabrication was that, somehow, Joe Kennedy was in the bootlegging business and he had Mob contacts, because of that past partnership. Therefore, in order to arrange for Jack Kennedy’s victory in 1960 over Richard Nixon, he had a meeting with Sam Giancana, the Chicago Boss. In return for the Mob stealing votes in the 1960 election—in both the West Virginia primary and the Illinois general election—Joe would get his other son Robert to lay off the Mafia when he became Attorney General. Later, Sy Hersh tried to fill in this design with his hatchet job of a biography of John Kennedy, The Dark Side of Camelot. Predictably, Patterson and Fagen, use the Hersh book as a source, perhaps because it was also published by Little, Brown.

Hersh’s book was so bad, and used so many dubious sources, that even Garry Wills—no fan of the Kennedys—went after it on those grounds in his long review in The New York Review of Books. (See the article entitled The SecondAssassination in the 12/18/1997 issue.) For example, Hersh relied on a disbarred lawyer, one who was also an ex-alcoholic and who had been convicted of both bribery and forging money orders, as his source for the meeting between Joe Kennedy and Giancana.

But beyond that, as both Daniel Okrent in Last Call his definitive book on Prohibition and David Nasaw in his previously mentioned biography of Joe Kennedy show, there was never any credible evidence that Joe Kennedy was ever mixed up in bootlegging or knew any mobsters. How do we know this? Because as Okrent demonstrated, every time Joe Kennedy was appointed to a government position—as he was six times in his life—he had to undergo an investigation. Each one of those inquiries occurred after Prohibition was lifted, therefore there was ample opportunity for anyone to reveal Joe Kennedy’s illicit activity. In hundreds of declassified pages that Okrent secured, there is nothing about any such Mob relationship. (Okrent, p. 369)

If either Patterson or Fagen had read the CIA Inspector General Report I mentioned above, they would have realized another problem with Chuck Giancana’s novel. At a 1959 meeting with the Kennedys, including Jack, Sam Giancana revealed to the senator that he was working with the CIA to kill Castro. (Double Cross, p. 279) This poses a large time continuum problem for that Chuck Giancana novel. For the Inspector General report reveals that the CIA/Mafia plots did not begin until the next year, 1960. (See IG Report, p. 3) With these two facts, furnished by Okrent and the declassified IG report, Double Cross is exposed for what it is: deceitful rubbish. And the question now becomes: Why on earth would Patterson and Fagen use Giancana’s discredited book?

And this is a serious problem for The House of Kennedy. I detected only one mention of any use of declassified files by the ARRB in the book, which speaks reams in and of itself. The overwhelming number of sources that the authors use are books by the likes of Ron Kessler, Sy Hersh, Edward Klein, John Davis, and Thomas Reeves, among others of dubious merit. As I and others have shown, these books all have serious critical problems. If one relies on this kind of problematic sourcing, one naturally ends up with a problematic book, one that no one should rely upon for factual data or conclusions.

But there is another point that needs to be made about using this kind of sourcing. One definition of a hatchet job is when a work goes beyond even the official flawed record in order to present a slanted view of the subject. This book does not just wish to present a completely distorted view of the Kennedys. It wants the reader to believe that there is really no question about the assassinations of either John Kennedy or Robert Kennedy. That proposition, on its face, is ludicrous in light of what we know today about those two murders. But to indicate the quality of this book consider what it says about the alleged assassin in the JFK case, Lee Harvey Oswald. The authors say that Oswald was fully aware of the routing and timing of the Kennedy motorcade through Dallas on 11/22/63. Therefore, Oswald was primed and ready to kill JFK that day. (Patterson and Fagen, p. 111) Their ostensible source for this is a general reference to Chapter Four of the Warren Report. In perusing that chapter, I can inform the reader that there is no information at all there about what this book has presented as a fact.

The same stunt is pulled with Sirhan Sirhan and the Robert Kennedy assassination. Patterson and Fagen say that Sirhan concealed his handgun in a rolled-up poster, while waiting for Bobby Kennedy in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel. Again, this is not true. Sirhan had no poster to conceal the weapon with. I consulted on this issue with Lisa Pease, who wrote the most recent and best book on the RFK assassination, A Lie Too Big to Fail. (E-mail communication with Lisa Pease on April 20th) Secondly, Patterson and Fagen use the testimony of garbageman Alvin Clark to say that Sirhan had told him in advance he would shoot Robert Kennedy. Again, Patterson and Fagen should have read A Lie Too Big to Fail before including Clark. As Lisa notes in her book, the FBI recruited Clark to testify against his will. But further, the Los Angeles DA’s office worked on Clark, who claimed he was being harassed. But the LAPD found out about certain problems Clark had with the law, including burglary and child molesting which could explain his reluctance to testify. And, as Pease notes, this may have provided some leverage for the police to overcome his reluctance. (Pease, pp. 168-69) Can one imagine using Clark against Sirhan and not providing this important context?

Since this is a tabloid type of book, Patterson and Fagen write that both John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were having affairs with Marilyn Monroe up to the time of her death in 1962. Again, this can only be concluded if one ignores the best work in that case, which, predictably, our Dynamic Duo does. In 2018 and 2019, author Don McGovern wrote the first and second editions of his outstanding book on the Marilyn Monroe case entitled Murder Orthodoxies. In that fine piece of objective scholarship, one will see all the Monroe mythology that The House of Kennedy wants to impose of its readers—Fred Otash, Jack Clemmons, George Smathers, Robert Slatzer—disposed of quite cogently.

There is one other key point about this poor book. As most biographers of Robert Kennedy note, he was the first Attorney General to enforce the milestone Brown vs. Board decision, which banned school segregation. This is saying something, because that case was decided in 1954. This means that President Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon, who were in power for eight years and had two Attorney Generals who could have enforced that law, did next to nothing about it. In a speech Robert Kennedy made at the University of Georgia in 1961, he made it clear that this would not be the case under him. In all the chapters on Bobby Kennedy, you will not see any mention of that important speech in this book. And you will not read anything about Robert Kennedy’s face-off with governors Ross Barnett of Mississippi or George Wallace of Alabama in order to get Ole Miss and the University of Alabama integrated. Nor, as with his duel with the steel companies, do the authors write about John Kennedy’s June 11, 1963 watershed national speech on civil rights. One which many historians agree was the most important speech on the subject since Abraham Lincoln.

This almost monomaniacal one-sided approach extends to what the authors call “the Kennedy cousins”. This includes the Michael Skakel/Martha Moxley case, about which Robert Kennedy Jr. wrote a book exposing that for the fraud it was. (Click here for a review of that book)

I could go on and on. Paragraph by paragraph, chapter by its many chapters, this is a worthless book. The agenda behind it is pretty clear. The idea is to present the Kennedy clan as a bunch of useless wastrels, whose two most prominent political representatives were murdered by lone nuts. Therefore, those murders have no political or historic importance. The problem for the authors is that one can only come to that conclusion if one does major alterations in the historical record:  censoring important material, depriving the reader of information he has to know in order to make an informed judgment. When one does those kinds of things, one is not writing history. He or she is producing a dramatic construct, without labeling it as such. And that is really one of the last things this country needs at this time.

Last modified on Sunday, 26 April 2020 00:17
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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