Review of Barbara Perry's Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch

November 22, 2013

Review of Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch ( (Norton, 2013) by Barbara Perry, Co-chair of the Miller Center Oral History Program and U.Va. Associate Professor. Rose Kennedy was a complex, contradictory, powerful woman and remains an icon of American life. As matriarch of the Kennedy clan that became America’s most powerful political dynasty, Rose was the daughter of the powerful Boston Irish politician John Fitzgerald (better known as Honey Fitz), wife of the wealthy and powerful Joe Kennedy, Sr., a media figure in her own right, and a powerful shaper of the family’s and thus America’s destiny.

She was also prevented from attending Wellesley and sent to a convent by her father, the much-wronged wife of a famously philandering husband, and the tragic mother of so many lost children.

Barbara Perry’s book gives the fully-rounded woman to us—the woman who was dedicated to projecting a perfect image of herself and her family, who pushed her family to excellence and intelligence (hardly ever did a family lunch go by without her grilling the children on current events), who was deeply religious and deeply traditional and yet lived an active, independent life , who arguably came into her own in her 70s and after, and who made the most of bad and even terrible circumstances.

Rose Kennedy and Jack Rose Kennedy and Jack

Perry came to the story through two doorways—her own mother and childhood and her education and training. At the age of four, Perry went to see the young Jack Kennedy as he campaigned in Louisville, Kentucky. Perry’s mother, Jack Kennedy’s age and also Catholic, was devoted to him already and got her children dressed, overcame her dislike of crowds, downtown Louisville, and driving, and drove them from the suburbs to the campaign event early enough to be positioned right in front of the Kennedy. Perry laughs about her mother’s questioning Barbara later whether or not she remembered the talk—which at age four didn’t make much of an impression—but she well remembered the power of the event and the “hold” he had on her mother and many of her generation.

Perry went on to get her BA from the University of Louisville, her MA from Oxford University, and her Ph.D. in Government from the University of Virginia. Perry’s family had raised all of their children to do their best and Perry carried with her no sense of limitations because she was female. Although she noticed that not many of her fellow graduate students were female, Perry didn’t consider herself a feminist in the sense of the word then understood. She did, however, step forward with the support of Henry Abraham, well-known authority in the judiciary and constitutional law, to teach a class when a faculty member went on leave, an unprecedented event for a woman graduate student in the department then.

She later became the Carter Glass Professor of Government and founding director of the Center for Civic Renewal at Sweet Brian and a judicial fellow at the US Supreme Court where she drafted speeches for Chief Justice Rehnquist. Perry wrote a book about the Supreme Court, The Supremes: An Introduction to the United States Supreme Court Justices (Lang, 2009), and an article on the women on the Supreme Court, “A Female Trinity: Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan on the US Supreme Court," (Crystal Ball, May 13, 2010) She also taught a class in Women, Law, and Politics. She has written a book on Jackie Kennedy as well, Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier (University of Kansas Press, 2004). Perry remembers the day in her Catholic school when the children were asked to say “the final prayer for President Kennedy who has died.” Perry is fascinated by the way in which both Jackie Kennedy and Rose Kennedy mastered the symbols of the presidency to project a well-crafted image.

The image of the president taps into our deepest beliefs and desires. To compliment Perry’s mother would have been to say she kept a lovely home, was perfectly turned out, and raised responsible children. Rose elevated these accolades to a public art. Although Rose herself couldn’t vote until she was 30 years old, she had been deeply involved in politics all her life, acting as hostess for her father’s events in place of her more retiring mother. The frustrations, thwartings, and eventual tragedies of losing children to accidents, mental handicap, and finally assassinations became for Rose, in Perry’s words “without contradiction or paradox” an opportunity to be like the Blessed Virgin Mary in not letting the effect of the tragedies show.

Her powerful belief in a life after this one led her to speak occasionally of something she meant to tell the president (meaning Jack) when she saw him again. If Joe Kennedy, Sr, was the coach and Jack the quarterback, Perry says, then Rose was the cheerleader. Her efforts on the family’s behalf became increasingly public and she was very popular. Her support of Ted Kennedy after Chappaquiddick arguably turned the tide of favor back his way and helped win his next election. When her famous husband and children were no longer out in front, Rose herself became even more visible a campaigner and she ontinued to appear in the media well into her 80s, perhaps her finest hours coming late in life. Barbara Perry’s biography of Rose Kennedy is deeply researched, based on the documents available, on Rose’s many letters to her children, family, and friends, and a batch of letters Perry was able to snag on eBay. It is a scholarly book that is also eminently readable and tells us the complex, tragic, and ultimately heroic story of perhaps our most powerful political mother, Rose Kennedy.

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