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121 – The Kennedy Curse: Tragedies and Superstitions of American Royalty

The United States isn’t supposed to have royalty, elected officials are supposed to be normal citizens. You don’t get “born into” anything here, you’re supposed to earn your position. In fact, the Founding Fathers didn’t even like the idea of permanent titles. You weren’t President for Life, you were only called “President” while you were in office.  It was supposed to be different than the aristocracy they escaped from in Europe.

john quincy adams kennedy curse
John Quincy Adams baby, those chops mean BUSINESS

But an American nobility crept into politics almost from the beginning. The second US President, John Adams’ son John Quincy Adams served as minister to Russia for his father, then Secretary of State before being elected to the big chair in a controversial race against Andrew Jackson. President William Henry Harrison served as President for 32 days, but his grandson served a full term in 1888. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were related distantly (but FDR’s wife Eleanor was Teddy’s nice).

Royalty isn’t just about power, though, it’s also about glamour. It’s about capturing the public’s imagination. While the Bush family gave us two presidents, a governor, a senator, and representative, let’s face it, they’re powerful, they’re wealthy, but just not very sexy.

When you’re looking for sexy, you need star power, and for decades there were no brighter lights in the Democratic Party than the Kennedys of Massachusetts. Born in Boston in 1889,  Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. lead his family to change the world in the Twentieth Century. Three of his sons would be Senators, one would become President (but they all ran at one time or another) and his daughter was the Irish Ambassador. His son-in-law started the Peace Corps and ran for Vice President in 1972, another was a member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. One granddaughter is Ambassador to Japan, one is a national television reporter and married Arnold Schwarzenegger. Two of his grandson served in the House of Representatives. You get the point.

arnold Schwarzenegger ted kennedy
Ahnuld and his Uncle Ted laughing after some housekeeper “interviews”

Joseph Kennedy’s made his fortune first as a banker and Wall Street investor and then as a financier of Hollywood film studios in the 1920s (he founded RKO Pictures!) His ambitions turned political when President Roosevelt made him the Ambassador to the UK in the late 1930s, but Joseph’s controversial statements about “democracy being finished” in Britain combined with his perceived pro-Nazi isolationist views towards World War II.

And it’s when he came back to the United States and ended his Ambassadorship is when the Kennedy Curse seems to have begun.

1941, his daughter Rosemary has a botched lobotomy, rendering her intellect to that of a toddler for the rest of her life. In 1944, his son Joseph Jr. who he was grooming to run for President, dies flying a mission over the English Channel. 1948, his daughter Kathleen dies in a French plane crash. That’s three tragedies in the 1940s alone, but the 60s would be even more harsh.

John F. Kennedy eventually does become President, but he himself had suffered the loss of two children, one through a miscarriage and another child who lived for only 2 days in 1963. The first attempt on his life was in 1960 but the successful assassination on November 22nd, 1963 becomes the cultural landmark of the entire decade and people will argue and obsess about it for decades to come.

Robert Kennedy then becomes a Senator from New York and runs for President in 1968. He’s assassinated the night he wins the California Democratic Primary.

The next brother, Ted Kennedy, is a Senator in Massachusetts in 1969. He goes to a party, gets drunk, and drives away with a 28-year old former secretary of his brother Bobby. The car ends up going over the side of a bridge, she dies, and he leaves the scene of the accident. At the press conference the next night discussing his problematic behavior, he wonders aloud “whether some awful curse actually did hang over all the Kennedys”. He only ends up with a 2-month jail sentence, though. And while the Chappaquiddick Incident most likely cost him his own shot at the White House, it also ended up with his wife suffering a miscarriage shortly after.

More incidents happen to lesser known Kennedys and children in the 70s and 80s, but the family stayed in the headlines in the 90s with William Kennedy Smith’s rape trial in 1991, one of Bobby’s children dying in a skiing accident in 1997, and then JFK Jr’s tragic plane crash in 1999 that kills him, his wife, and sister-in-law.

Could there be a curse? Bands like The Maine and Alexisonfire have named songs after the idea. Punk icon Jello Biafra named his band The Dead Kennedys (after one of his friends told him about the name inspired by a stuffed bear named “Teddy Kennedy”) because of its shock value. The American people loved the Kennedys and their incredible wealth, romantic escapades, and their rise and fall in Washington (there was a Kennedy in some elected office every year between 1947 and 2011) is the stuff of tabloid dreams. Joseph Kennedy’s sons were absolutely American princes.

But do the sins of the father affect the son? Well, according to the Bible they do. It’s right there in the Old Testament…

‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’

And speaking of the Old Testament, there is a theory believe that the Kennedy curse stems from Joseph’s anti-Semitism. He blamed Jewish bankers for the Great Depression and he believed that there was a Jewish conspiracy trying to push the US into the Second World War. He had some ugly views about the Jewish people, and even supported a plan to move the German Jewish population to the European colonies in Africa.

Indeed, there’s an urban legend that he was cruel to some Jewish refugees trying to escape Nazi Germany and they placed a curse on the man and his family. It’s an interesting thought and there is a history of curses in Jewish mysticism and it’s often associated with a famous Rabbi. It gives a “reason” for the Kennedys’ tragedies that seem to happen so quickly and so publicly.

But the real reason is probably just being in the public spotlight for so long with fabulous wealth and tremendous ambition. The Kennedys were rich playboys and war heroes who hung around with movie stars (even though I don’t believe that JFK and Marilyn were a “thing” anymore) and wanted to rule the country. They were fascinating and enticing, but their life in the spotlight and fast lifestyles got them in trouble and we all got to see it as it happened.

This week’s song, “Snuff Film”, has a verse inspired by Abraham Zapruder’s (I call him William in the podcast for some reason, like an idiot) movie of JFK’s assassination. It’s an older Sunspot track about our obsession with watching tragedy and how sometimes that can turn around with negative effects on our own lives.

Directed and premeditated,
Graphic gore, triple-X rated,
Ends a life that was so jaded,
on the Roman Senate floor.

When I realized that my religion,
was nothing more than superstition,
reality turned into visions,
knocking at my door.

My life was a snuff film,
that was over before it began.
My life was a snuff film,
and it was that day my wings fell away,
and I turned my back on man.

Driving through the streets of Dallas,
Conspiracies so full of malice,
Are cold, unfeeling, cruel, and callous,
hid behind a grassy knoll.

When I saw the things that came to pass,
through a mirror made of broken glass,
the future looked just like the past,
questioning the soul.

My life was a snuff film,
that was over before it began.
My life was a snuff film,
and it was that day my wings fell away,
and I turned my back on man.

And when God appeared,
in a cloud of faith and fear,
he looked at what he made and cried,
and he contemplated suicide.
And all the angels vanished from the earth,
leaving a sad, mistaken birth,
of a life never led,
endlessly dancing with the dead.

My life was a snuff film,
that was over before it began.
My life was a snuff film,
and it was that day my wings fell away,
and I turned my back on man.