Glamour, power, wealth, and influence are the markers of the notorious Kennedy family, whose political and business success have enraptured the attention of many and the resentment and hatred of others. This family started with humble beginnings, as have many who emblemize the ‘American dream’; the political dynasty began with John F. Kennedy’s father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy. Joseph P. Kennedy was the child of two Irish working-class immigrant parents, and he eventually earned a college degree and became an extremely successful businessman both in banking and in the motion picture industry and he invested his wealth, multiplying his success. Kennedy encouraged his children to go into politics; he had a short-lived political career without great success. Along with his accomplishments, Kennedy also faced tragedy; he had nine children with wife Rose Elizabeth, and of those nine, four died (see figure 1) and one was permanently incapacitated in early adulthood. More tragedies followed throughout the Kennedy family tree which grew from Joseph and Rose, such as sickness and car accidents. These deaths and tragedies, and more that followed, have been turned into a conspiracy theory labeled “the Kennedy Curse”. This paper will explore this theory in more detail in terms of the theory itself, the propagators and the truth, lies, and logical flaws of their claims.
The conspiracy describes a series of sudden, unusual, and unnatural deaths that befell the family of Joseph F. Kennedy and the families of his children. There were ten deaths, three of which resulted from plane crashes (all separate incidents), one stillborn child, an infant death, over drug overdose, and a suicide. Several other incidents also fall under the umbrella of the ‘curse’, which include one non-fatal plane crash, a death of a friend of the Kennedys in a car crash (Ted Kennedy was the driver), a debilitating lobotomy, and one Kennedy on a hijacked flight3. The theory behind these disastrous happenings is two-fold; one story is based on Joseph P. Kennedy’s treatment of a group of Jewish people and the other involves the wealth and extravagance of the Kennedy lifestyle. Joseph Kennedy, Sr. was traveling aboard an ocean liner travelling from England to the United States in 1937 along with Rabbi Israel Jacobson and six of his students who were trying to escape the Nazis and apparently Joseph Kennedy complained about the noise these refugees were making while praying for Rosh Hashanah. As a result, the Rabbi put a curse on the Kennedy family so that death would befall Joseph Kennedy and his children. In addition, Klein claims that the Kennedy family believe they are above the law and this ‘curse’ is repayment for their extravagance and reckless behavior. Klein states that the family members “act as though they are not governed by the rules of God and men, and their fantasy of omnipotence puts them on a fatal collision course with reality”  and this reality is the tragic loss of one family member after another. In addition, the Kennedy’s efforts to gain power and influence is, according to Klein, a rebuttal against the family’s humble beginnings as oppressed Irish immigrants5. A few books were written on the conspiracy, feeding a seemingly infinite public interest in this famed political dynasty.
Author Arthur Gerard Gatti wrote one of the first publications focused on the Kennedy Curse in 1975, aptly titled The Kennedy Curse. Gatti was born in New York City in 1942, the son of a tailor and publisher’s assistant; he attended Hofstra College and at the Queen College of the City University of New York6. In terms of his political beliefs, Gatti cites his conviction in “Enlightened anarchy; participatory democracy; benevolent despotism–in that order”6, therefore an attack on the Kennedy family is not surprising. The Kennedys represent liberal democracy, which entails government control and the polar opposite of anarchy. His claim that the Kennedy curse indeed exists is predictable considering his career background, or indeed his belief in any conspiracy theory to begin with. Gatti believed in astrology and was a member of the American Federation of Astrologers and the National Council for Geocosmic Research6. In addition, he was the features editor of Sybil Leek’s Astrology, the managing editor of both Astrology Guide and Your Personal Astrology, as well as the editor-in-chief of Cosmic Frontiers, all publications focused on the topic of astrology6. Clearly, the line of thinking in his work is nonsensical. Astrology is mythical and has no basis in fact, which discredits his ability to write in a logical manner and the credibility of his work on the Kennedy Curse. Nancy Gager Clinch later wrote a book titled The Kennedy Neurosis which tied the tragedies in the Kennedy family to their wealth and power and wrote about the psychological desire for sex, money, and influence. Clinch received a bachelor’s degree in political science and worked as an analyst for the Defense Department; the focus of her written work is the state of housing in South Korea and the Mongolian People’s Republic7. Her study of East Asia does not qualify her to assess the psychology of the Kennedy family, nor to tie their ambitious nature to their deaths.
Edward Klein is the most well-known believer in the Kennedy Curse. Klein published the most eminent book on the conspiracy theory titled The Kennedy Curse: Why Tragedy Has Haunted America’s First Family for 150 Years (see figure 2), published in 2004. He is a well-recognized and prolific writer. He published several books on political matter, all of which are New York Times bestsellers, including All Too Human: The Love Story of Jack and Jackie Kennedy, and The Amateur; according to his site, where he describes himself as an “investigative journalist”. He makes outlandish claims in these books, such as the claim that Chelsea Clinton was born from rape, claims which only serve to illustrate his irrationality. Despite this, Klein is well-educated and has an extensive background in the journalism industry; he earned his undergraduate degree from Colgate University and his graduate degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism and he served as the editor-in-chief The New York Times Magazine and he has written for Vanity Fair and Parade. Klein is very protective of his work on the Kennedys, which perhaps illustrates some insecurity, and as he puts it, after he writes about the Kennedys “you can be sure of one thing: the empire will strike back”. He claims that Melody Miller, the press secretary of Ted Kennedy, works with other liberals to discredit his work. He calls Miller’s supposed efforts a “smear campaign”. In terms of Klein’s political beliefs, he is clearly conservative; all of his books attack liberal political leaders, which is not a coincidence and The Washington Post describes Klein as an “influential editor to conservative author”. The conservative stance of this author and the incredible public interest in the Kennedy family could have motivated him to promote the Kennedy Curse.
Although the Kennedy Family consists of many different branches and numerous individuals, many members have died of unnatural causes and in unusual ways. For example, four members of the family have died in three separate plane crashes: John F. Kennedy’s nephew and his nephew’s wife, John F. Kennedy’s sister, and John F. Kennedy’s brother. The likelihood of dying in a plane crash is 1 in 1 million, so the fact that this happened to four individuals in the family is strange and slightly eerie. In addition, Ted Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s brother, was onboard a plane which was hijacked and his spine was permanently damaged as result of violence on the plane. The likelihood of being the victim of terrorist attack is even less likely, no doubt. John F. Kennedy’s nephew, Michael Kennedy, died in a skiing accident in 1998 in Aspen, Colorado and according to CNN, the likelihood of dying in a ski accident is 0.78 per million skiers. Again, this is an extremely low probability death. The nature of the deaths of the Kennedys are unusual and numerous, even for a large family, which prompts the public, writers, and even members of the Kennedy family itself, to question whether or not there is a supernatural reason behind their deaths.
While the deaths are many, the justification for these deaths is illogical. Two ‘logical fallacies’ plague explanation of the Kennedy Curse conspiracy, “the Texas sharpshooter” and “false cause”, due to the selective information and incongruent relationship between the ‘character’ of the Kennedy and their deaths. “The Texas Sharpshooter” logical fallacy is defined as choosing specific pieces of information to fit one’s argument, when the overall picture of the data does not. This applies to the Kennedy Curse conspiracy because the propagators claim that an unreasonable number of members of one family have died and therefore there must be a curse placed upon them. The data they are using to support this claim in the number of deaths and tragedies. However, the Kennedy family extensive, Bobby Kennedy alone had nine children, and the family includes 48 people beginning with John F. Kennedy’s mother and father, down to their grandchildren. While it may be true that skiing accidents and assassinations are rare, the Kennedy family has an extremely high profile in media and they engage in ‘exciting’ activities, such as skiing, sailing, and travelling, all of which involve risk. When Michael Kennedy died skiing, he was in fact playing football while skiing down a slope20, which is not a safe activity. The supporters of the Kennedy Curse ignore the fact that many members of the Kennedy family lived long lives, often marked by success and achievement. The second fallacy, ‘false cause’ is described as making an argument correlating two entities which are not necessarily related to explain the claim. In this case, the propagators of the Kennedy Curse claim that the family’s success and wealth led to their ultimate demise, and wealth and death are not necessarily correlated.
The origin of the curse, according to some authors, trickles down to the actions of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., who complained about Jewish people praying on an ocean liner from Europe to the United States. Joseph Kennedy was not on an ocean liner in 1937. In the book, The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, author David Nasaw describes Joseph P. Kennedy’s preparations for leaving for England, for his career at United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. He states that “On February 2, 1938, as Kennedy prepared to leave for London…”, so clearly Kennedy was in the United States. Therefore, he could not have been on board an ocean liner from England to the United States under the premise of his career as a diplomat. This is a glaring falsehood, which is at the core of Klein’s claims about the Kennedys.
The popularity of the Kennedy family translates into profit whenever someone publishes a written work which focuses on this famous family. The Kennedys emblemize the elite liberal cause and the American Dream. The enormous public interest almost guarantees the author of any book on the Kennedy attention, as author Ferguson and Sachs (2001) state about the family, “How to account for the never failing presence of the Kennedys in American life? Cynics point to an apparatus of publicists, friendly journalists and starry-eyed academics, all inspired by the family’s wealth and charm”. For example, the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art centering on Jacqueline Kennedy and her years as First Lady was one of the most visited exhibitions since the one on Tutankhamen, equating the importance of Jacqueline Kennedy to one of the most prized ancient antiquities. In addition to wealth, the democratic nature of the family leaves them vulnerable to attacks from the right. Edward Klein and Nancy Clinch, both conservative, target the Kennedy family, and their political stances are crucial to their attacks.
Questions must be raised about how this conspiracy came about and about the results. In terms of the logistics, how large in the conspiracy? While the conspiracy may be well-known, there are few authors who have written on the topic themselves. Who gains from this conspiracy and why? Well, the financial benefits of writing on the Kennedys brings authors much attention and at times, wealth. However, the Kennedy family has to contend with journalists and other authors throwing the deaths of their sisters, cousins, and parts in their grieving faces. In addition, these deaths detract from the great accomplishments and positive influence several of the Kennedys had on the United States. How likely is it to remain covered up if it has gone on for a long time? The deaths continue to occur, and it is unlikely that the Jewish community would admit to killing the Kennedy family, and they are not going to associate their own success with the deaths of their family members.
The propaganda techniques involved in the spread of the Kennedy Curse include name calling and glittering generalities. Name calling is defined as “a device to make us form a judgement to reject and condemn without examining the evidence”. In terms of name this technique, Klein places the Kennedys under several titles, including Irish, immigrant, and catholic, of all of which have an image or identity associated with them and each one as part of their demise. They were oppressed in Ireland and as Klein puts it, this status left an indelible scar on their psyche. Among America’s immigrant groups in the 19th century, the Irish were the only people who suffered the soul-searing experience of colonialism”5; he is using their religion and their status as immigrants against them in this name-calling. The glittering generalities are clearly evident in this conspiracy theory. The site Propaganda Critic defines “Glittering generalities” as a propaganda technique that uses “virtue words about which we have deep-set ideas” and the site gives the example of using words such as good, democracy, patriotism, etc. The Kennedys are the quintessential elite liberal group; they are extremely well-educated, wealthy, and emblematic northeasterners with the ‘Kennedy Compound’ (their home, see figure 3) in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, a summertime playground for the rich and famous. Therefore, they are likely subject to generalities about their lifestyle and personalities, which may not be completely accurate. For example, Edward Klein states the “the Kennedy Family has a combination of classic hubris…they have this obsession with power, almost to the exclusion of ethical standard”. Clearly, Klein uses words such as ‘power’ and ‘ethics’ to capture the attention of readers and create an image of the Kennedys, even though most politicians aspire to some sort of power if they are running for any sort of office. Furthermore, in an interview with CBS News he cites ‘infidelity’ within the family, as if infidelity is absent in the lives of other politicians and famous individuals.
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