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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

No Deal!: Joe Kennedy Jilts Boardwalk Empire's Nucky Thompson

Joseph P. Kennedy--Played by himself and by Matt Letscher (right)

Last fall, in its final season, Boardwalk Empire added its own fictionalized support to setting the record straight about JFK’s no less dynamic father, Joseph P. Kennedy. Without question, the Kennedy patriarch was a womanizer and a master of financial legerdemain, including making the most of insider information (legal in the 1920s). But he scrupulously remained within the letter of the law. According to David Nasaw’s The Patriarch (2012)--a Pulitzer finalist--and Dan Okrent’s Last Call (2010), Joe’s reputation as a Prohibition-era bootlegger was a myth, propagated by JFK’s political opponents and organized crime habitues.  (That, of course, didn’t stop JPK from leveraging political influence and insider information when cornering the scotch import market immediately after Prohibition).

Joseph’s Choice

As season five of Boardwalk opens, the year is 1931, with the end of Prohibition a growing likelihood.  Boardwalk’s central character, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), pitches Kennedy (Matt Letscher) to join forces in importing Bacardi rum from Cuba to the U.S, ostensibly after Prohibition. (Nucky, a veteran bootlegger, considers Kennedy a strong prospect given his extreme wealth and new-found participation in grain markets—a prelude to post-Prohibition distilling.)

Following conversations between the two that explored their shared roots and self-driven opportunism, Joe rebuffs Nucky, after asking:

What are you doing this for? What are you making the money for?  

For Kennedy, it’s all about family. After a painfully pregnant pause, all Nucky can manage is a stilted “I want to leave something behind.”  (see clip below.)

The Kennedy-Thompson relationship incidentally is a “business” variation on the crime movie theme where [some] cops and robbers discover a mysterious  affinity for one another and gravitate toward a climactic tryst (A favorite is DiNiro and Pacino in Heat).

Rendez-vous with Nucky

JFK: “My father always told me that all businessmen were  .  .  .”

Ironically, as the first chairman of the SEC, Joe Kennedy excelled in putting insider trading and other questionable practices out of business. Initially, many a New Dealer blanched at Kennedy's 1934 appointment. But FDR knew better. Who better than business insider Joe Kennedy, the President figured, to extirpate practices that he himself knew first-hand?

In his memoirs, FDR advisor Raymond Moley recalled vetting Kennedy for the job:

Joe, I know darned well you want this job. But if anything in your career in business could injure the President, this is the time to spill it. Let’s forget the general criticism that you’ve made money on Wall Street.’ Kennedy reacted precisely as I thought he would. With a burst of profanity he defied anyone to question his devotion to the public interest or to point to a single shady act in his whole life. The President did not need to worry about that, he said. What was more, he would give his critics—and here again the profanity flowed freely—an administration of the SEC that would be a credit to the country, the President, himself and his family—clear down to the ninth child.” [excerpted from Nasaw]

                                     Joseph's Choice (via YouTube):

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