For those of us who grew up in Massachusetts, immunized by long exposure to the national obsession with All Things Kennedy (sort of like 18th century milkmaids and cowpox?), this has been a long week of déja vu. Without detouring into the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s complex life, I want to consider why the media seemingly finds it impossible to refer to Kennedy without using the term ‘patriarch’—and, in at least one case that I stumbled across, ‘revered patriarch’. Of course, in our democracy there is no longer any legal sanction for the position of patriarch as head of an extended family, as that terrain of authority has been partitioned up among the much more modest scopes of “head of household,” “parent,” “guardian,” and the like, while expanding to include both men and women. In one sense, patriarch is now little more than an honorific designating the high influence within a family exerted by a senior male (although I should note that saying it is “little more than” an honorific does not do justice to the fact that by sheer repetition, honorifics reinforce the importance of the status that they assert).
However, the relentless appearance of the term coupled with Senator Kennedy’s name suggests that the word is doing other work as well, serving as code for what cannot be said otherwise. For one thing ‘patriarch’ makes visible a large number of otherwise irrelevant individuals by linking them up into a subordinate web: not just family, but abject family. It is impossible to use the word patriarch without envisioning a vast faceless horde milling about aimlessly, waiting for the patriarch to tell them what to do. Somewhere a Kennedy third cousin once removed is living some kind of life that has nothing to do with the ‘clan’, but evoking the word patriarch immediately sweeps this person into a crowd. One consequence is thus to make the patriarch’s position of informal influence seem larger than it may actually be. There is no question that Senator Kennedy was hugely influential in Congress, in the formal context of his job; but was he really the go-to guy for all those hundreds of random individuals linked by accidents of birth? To put it another way: doesn’t it actually put Kennedy down to suggest that he was influential because of progeneration rather than because of his own competence as a Senator?
Another function of the word patriarch in this particular instance may be to allow the media to underline the size of Senator Kennedy’s family—one of nine children himself, he has numerous near relatives in his own and the following generation—without getting bogged down in often fractious debates on family size in America. ‘Patriarch’ can thus serve as code for suggestions about Catholic fertility or male virility that the writer doesn’t want to explicitly adumbrate for fear of offending someone. It is left to the individual reader to decode the hidden text.
I believe that the chief work the word does in this context, however, is to express the realities of nepotism without going into the ugly details. Senator Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, ruthlessly bought, bartered, and finagled his way to wealth and power, and then used both to further political careers for three of his sons. Their individual qualifications for the jobs they held aside, they each benefited from Joe Kennedy’s machinations on their behalf; and this pattern has been replicated in the following generation. Certainly nepotism is no new force in American politics; indeed, a 2003 article in Atlantic Monthly by Adam Bellow argues that this is a golden age of dynastic politics (Bellow sees political nepotism as a force for both good and bad). ‘Patriarch’ puts a normative face on this reality that serves to sweep it back under the rug.
I do realize that this is something of a basic gloss on Patriarchy 101; also that I have not addressed the rather dissimilar use of the word ‘matriarch’ in connection with the Kennedys. But I do find it interesting that not all the disquisitions on patriarchy over the last half-century could keep journalists of all stripes from reflexively grabbing for ‘patriarch’ as a term of admiration when Senator Kennedy died.