April 11, 2004: Headlines: COS - Nepal: Writing - Nepal: President Kennedy: Peace Corps Directors - Shriver: New York Times: 'Sons of Camelot': The Fates and the Kennedys by Nepal RPCV Laurence Leamer

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'Sons of Camelot': The Fates and the Kennedys by Nepal RPCV Laurence Leamer

'Sons of Camelot': The Fates and the Kennedys by Nepal RPCV Laurence Leamer

'Sons of Camelot': The Fates and the Kennedys by Nepal RPCV Laurence Leamer

'Sons of Camelot': The Fates and the Kennedys


Published: April 11, 2004

n many ways, Laurence Leamer's ''Sons of Camelot: The Fate of an American Dynasty'' has more in common with the most recent edition in a series of commemorative plates -- some more collectible than others -- than it has with serious biography. The Kennedys have long been a brand as well as a family. As such, they are something of a Leamer specialty. He is the author of, among other works, two previous popular books about the Kennedys: ''The Kennedy Men: 1901-1963'' and ''The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family.''

''Sons of Camelot'' picks up the story of the male Kennedys where ''The Kennedy Men'' left off. While this may seem a simple and logical step, in practice it presents a formidable narrative challenge. The lives of the Kennedy men from 1901 to 1963 were certainly not without their ups and downs, but dynastically speaking, the family was pretty much on the rise. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, with whose funeral ''Sons of Camelot'' begins, theirs is a harder tale to tell and less consistently interesting, so much so that if the book were more accurately titled, it would be called something like ''A Partial Account of the Lives of Some of the 19 Sons and Grandsons of Joe and Rose Kennedy After November 1963.''

''Sons of Camelot'' covers the political, but its 600-plus-page focus is primarily on the personal, and even then some subjects merely tap you on the shoulder and cut in for the one or two dances with which they are most publicly associated. For example, William Kennedy Smith springs into being for a chapter on his rape trial. He then exits for 200 pages, after which he returns to have his resume updated (he is a philanthropically active physician) and to decide against running for Congress. Others, like Tim Shriver, fitfully come and go, occupying themselves in a number of worthy causes. Still others, like John F. Kennedy Jr., the most collectible plate of all, are present and their lives fully accounted for throughout.

The reader is given a relatively thorough impression that Ethel Kennedy's idea of feeding, housing and supervising her children after the assassination of her husband bordered on abandoning them to the great outdoors with a bag of Frito-Lay potato chips and the chauffeur, whereas John Jr. was carefully raised by a mother who worked hard to ensure that he had both the structure and the liberty of a healthy childhood. We also learn that the four Shriver sons were raised in a stable two-parent household, as apparently were the two Smiths, despite their father's infidelities; that those of Ted and Joan Kennedy had an overcommitted father and a vulnerable, unhappy mother; and that Chris Lawford was the first Kennedy grandchild to grow up the product of divorce.

All of this is interesting enough. To say that the Kennedys have not continued to have lives full of drama (if you think of them as a brand) or trauma (if you think of them as human beings) is like saying water is not wet. Four who meet the book's criteria died tragically: Robert F. Kennedy by assassination; his son David by drug overdose; his son Michael in a skiing accident; and his nephew John Jr. in a plane crash. Leamer spoke to 10 of his surviving subjects -- the four sons of Sargent and Eunice Shriver; the five of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy; and Senator Ted Kennedy. None are quoted saying anything particularly revealing, but some of the substance -- admit it, you have no idea what Doug Kennedy does -- is or is likely to be news to most people. So is a lot of the detail kicked up by Leamer's interviews with secondary sources. For instance, amid the information generated from interviews with what genuinely appear to have been some of John Jr.'s closest friends is the fact that his hair hurt him. (''Apparently there just was so much hair growing out of his scalp, there was not enough room for all of it, and his head would ache.'')

The real question raised by ''Sons of Camelot'' is not so much whither-a-dynasty as the extent to which its subjects deserve the attention, in either a positive or a negative sense. Only a few of the younger Kennedy men in this book have or have had political careers (notably, Joe was a member of Congress, and Patrick Kennedy still is). Others have been in the news for both noble and ignoble actions: Bobby Jr. has done and continues to do important environmental work; Michael Kennedy had an affair with the family's teenage baby sitter.

Leamer duly remarks how odd their experience of simply being alive in a culture that consumes them so avidly must be, but he doesn't really have the writing chops to make you feel it. The most chilling moment in ''Sons of Camelot'' is one that the author, who in his capacity as a Kennedy historian is admittedly not required to know the words to rock songs, doesn't catch: John Jr. on a camping trip staying up late with a friend singing the Rolling Stones song ''Sympathy for the Devil,'' one of the most memorable lyrics of which is ''I shouted out 'Who killed the Kennedys?' / When after all it was you and me.''

In fact, the book only reliably comes truly alive when its subject is John Jr. He is beyond comparison the star of this work, just as he was of his generation of the family. Leamer's interviews with his friends and associates provide the fullest portrait of his adult life to date, as advertised, and fans of the brand should know that the book includes two previously unpublished pictures of him. There is no objective reason why John Jr.'s sayings and doings are and always have been of such enduring human interest. But they are. Even when he was a 3-year-old, his minutest gesture was unforgettable.

''Sons of Camelot'' begins by describing John Jr.'s salute to his father's coffin, and it seems not only the right but the only reasonable place to start -- in its contemporaneous context, both the last innocent image in American politics and the moment when, at least as the bearers of brand identity, the torch was passed to the members of a new generation of Kennedys. Irrespective of their best and worst efforts, they continue to represent the promise of a prelapsarian better future to a culture that enjoys nothing more than seeing the people who have failed to fulfill that promise punished. Ultimately, the subjects of ''Sons of Camelot'' share a common fate as an American dynasty only in the way in which the book itself is proof. It is their fate to be written about, whether they deserve it or not.

Mim Udovitch frequently writes about popular culture and the arts.

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Story Source: New York Times

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Nepal; Writing - Nepal; President Kennedy; Peace Corps Directors - Shriver



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