He was manipulative—and manipulated. He was a boor—and a bore. He had gumption—and guile. He was a vicious infighter—and a reflexive appeaser. He was imperious in manner—and impervious to advice. He was the paterfamilias to a political dynasty—and a notorious philanderer. He was ambitious—and defeatist.
Joseph P. Kennedy was all these things, and as the American ambassador to the Court of St. James’s during the critical years of 1938 to 1940, he pulled off a statecraft inside straight: He managed to alienate his sponsor (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), his direct supervisor (Secretary of State Cordell Hull), his ally in appeasement (Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain) and his diplomatic colleagues (both American and foreign).
Historians and Kennedy-watchers always knew that President Kennedy’s father was a difficult character—a “problematic” one, as we might say today. For a long time he showed up principally in chronicles of the Irish ascendancy in America, as background in JFK biographies, or as an aside in histories of American foreign policy in the period before the United States entered World War II. In recent years we’ve learned more about him—a good deal of it not very flattering. But seldom has the Joe Kennedy story been told in such a searing, remorseless way as it is in Susan Ronald’s “The Ambassador” (St. Martin’s, 441 pages, $29.99), her account of Kennedy’s foray into diplomacy.