The Myth of “Kennedy Class,” as Perpetuated by Olivia Rodrigo

The Myth of “Kennedy Class,” as Perpetuated by Olivia Rodrigo

by Genna Rivieccio (Paris, France)

In keeping with the tradition of elevating the Kennedys to the pinnacle of glamor in American politics (which should be telling of how “glamorous” American politics is), Olivia Rodrigo’s opening track for Guts, “all-american bitch,” wields a more than somewhat false simile:

I got class and integrity

Just like a goddamn Kennedy, I swear

Unless the line is meant to be facetious (as many others in the song are), Rodrigo seems as misinformed here as she was about which Joan Didion short story collection inspired her with the title for the song.[1] For it’s no secret now (as it scarcely was then) that the Kennedy name/presidency was mired in crookedness (though only Marilyn can truly say if that applied to JFK’s penis as well as his principles).

From the rumors of John’s patriarch, Joseph Kennedy Sr., pulling the necessary strings to nudge then-mayor of Chicago Richard Daley to, let’s say, influence certain Cook County ballot boxes[2] to the Secret Service being used to ferry JFK’s various mistresses in and out of bedrooms, the Kennedy name—particularly in its primary association with “Jack”—hardly equates with class or integrity. And definitely not with discretion. Indeed, JFK was about as discreet as Miss Monroe’s Jean Louis gown at his forty-fifth birthday celebration/Democratic Party fundraising gala in 1962. A spectacle that occurred mere months before JFK probably killed her (with some help from RFK, perhaps—and Teddy, per a slightly offensive 1985 SNL sketch in which Madonna plays Marilyn…this being only fair considering she would end up sleeping with John Jr.). A “conspiracy theory” that certainly wouldn’t be classy if it turned out to be true. But even if it’s not, there are still plenty of other ways in which JFK hardly radiated class.

The same went for the rest of his “clan” (as the Irish like to call families—particularly families of a storied and extensive lineage). Whether it was RFK’s own affair with Marilyn (and Jackie, for that matter) or Ted Kennedy leaving the scene of the crime he committed by driving himself and RFK campaign staffer Mary Jo Kopechne off the road while drunk. The infamous Chappaquiddick “incident” was a peak example of true “Kennedy class.” Kopechne, as it happened, was moved to enter the political realm in the first place after seeing the JFK inauguration speech during which he pontificated, “…my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Soon after, Kennedy would bilk the country and its highest office of all the privilege he could get out of it. And what Kopechne ended up doing “for Teddy” rather than her country, unfortunately, was dying.

Though, of course, JFK could claim the same. His death (a.k.a. assassination), come to think of it, happened about six years before Kopechne would become collateral damage in what some have billed as “the Kennedy curse.” In fact, Teddy himself was the one to put a name to the various tragedies and calamities that had befallen his clan over the decades, starting most clearly with the death of the eldest of Joseph Sr.’s sons, Joseph Jr., while serving as a land-based patrol bomber pilot during World War II. It was, naturally, Joe Jr. that Joe Sr. had intended to mold into a future U.S. president. A role that seemed somehow destined to assure that any Kennedy who tried to take it on would be destroyed. As both JFK and RFK found out in due time after Joe Jr.’s journey to the White House ended before it could even begin.

Luckily for Joe Sr., he still had plenty of children to bet on in the race called Building an American Dynasty. And at the top of the list after Joe Jr.’s death was Jack. A man whose penchant for instinctively sweeping any wrongdoing beneath the rug was not much better than what Teddy exhibited with Chappaquiddick (namely, taking hours to report the accident and Mary Jo’s death along with it[3]).

But what was to be expected of the Kennedy sons when it came to shirking transparency at all costs? Lest anyone forget, they learned from the best burier of secrets and shame: Joe Sr. Better known as the brainchild behind pushing for his daughter, Rosemary, to get a lobotomy because she was prone to having seizures and erratic/violent mood swings. Being that this was 1941, slapping her with the then-current panacea of a lobotomy was, sadly, par for the course. She was just twenty-three when the procedure ended up incapacitating her and preventing her from ever again speaking in a way that could be understood. So what else would Joe Sr. do but clean up the “mess” he made by burying Rosemary’s existence (hiding her whereabouts for decades) in a Wisconsin institution for the disabled? Never mind that Joe Sr. was the one who did the disabling by trying to “fix” a person who wasn’t broken. Again, real fuckin’ “classy.”

When it comes to the children Joseph Sr. begat, it was apparent that they (particularly the men) were taking a page out of the lawless, devil-may-care playbook he had nonverbally written for them. Most notably when it came to his propensity for stepping outside of his marriage with a celebrity. Even at a time when the very concept of “celebrity” was still germinal in its movie star iteration. Nonetheless, during the silent movie era, there were few bigger precursors to major stardom than Gloria Swanson.

After being among the few to actually increase their bank balance in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, Joe Sr. found himself orbiting the Hollywood scene, buying up stakes in studios and theaters to build on his “portfolio” of wealth. It was during this time that he encountered Swanson (in the days before she became Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard)…and proceeded to ruin her life. Not just by ousting her husband at the time, Henri de la Falaise, but also by defrauding her out of millions of dollars after becoming her business manager in addition to her paramour. It was when Joe decided to gift her with a Cadillac and expense it on her production company’s account that she finally had to call him out. A move that reportedly sent him out the door without ever speaking to her again. With this in mind, John’s behavior toward Marilyn looks positively princely (well, almost).

As the third generation of Kennedys (this being counted from Joe Sr. onwards) rose to prominence, it quickly became apparent that boorish behavior was something that ran in the blood. For JFK’s lone son, John Jr., had his own predilection for extramarital affairs. Only rather than being the married one in the scenario, he preferred to be the paramour. Specifically, to Madonna, who was “legally bound” to Sean Penn at the time of their tryst in 1988. Though Madonna might remind that Penn was a bit of a stick in the mud when it came to having any fun or lapping up the spotlight that went with the territory of being a major celebrity. Made more major by being “attached” to one of the biggest stars in the world.

Rather than being repelled like Sean, JFK Jr. seemed to be all the more titillated because of Madonna’s Marilyn Monroe-level fame…not to mention aesthetic. Madonna was already well-known for paying homage to one of the twentieth century’s greatest icons early on in her career. Perhaps most famously when she re-created the famed “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” sequence from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for her “Material Girl” video in 1985. Funnily enough, it was Sean who met and fell in love with Madonna on that set—not John Jr. But that didn’t mean Marilyn’s specter wouldn’t still haunt their eventual relationship. After all, Jackie insisted John call off his romance not because Madonna was a married woman, but because she was way too much of a Marilyn fangirl. With “class” like this, Jackie really had become a full-blown Kennedy.

Even those roundaboutly connected to the Kennedys couldn’t seem to avoid the taint of uncouthness and/or sexual impropriety. One prime example being Andrew Cuomo. Married to Kerry Kennedy for fifteen years (from 1990 to 2005), his descent into shame may have taken decades to occur, but when it happened, oh how it happened big. In a scandal that broke at the end of 2020 (just when Cuomo was riding high on praise [most of it self-given] for his handling of the pandemic), an independent investigative report released by Attorney General Letitia James stated that Cuomo sexually harassed eleven women during his tenure as New York governor (and who knows how many others before that?). Needless to say, some standard-issue male Kennedy bullshit had rubbed off on him. That, and probably working within the Clinton administration. Bill himself being a “renowned” acolyte of JFK—managing to get his picture taken with the OG presidential philanderer in 1963.

While marriage to a Kennedy might turn you corrupt if you weren’t already (or at least cause you to compromise some of your erstwhile ironclad “principles”), being a Kennedy male appeared to all but assure that you could be born into “high class” and still have no class at all. Most markedly when it came to the treatment of women. Another case in point: William Kennedy Smith, the son of Jean Kennedy/nephew of JFK. Smith was acquitted of a rape charge in 1991 despite reams of potential evidence against him. Evidence that also would have included the testimonies of three women stating on record that Smith had sexually assaulted them in the past. Their testimonies were deemed by Judge Mary Lupo to be inadmissible. After all, American “justice” stipulates that you should only be on trial for the crime you’ve committed, not the many others you’ve committed in the past and gotten away with.

Then there was Michael LeMoyne Kennedy, son to Bobby and yet another predatory Kennedy. A fact that came to light in 1997, two years before John Jr. died in a plane crash. But Michael had his own crash to deal with after being accused of having an affair with his children’s babysitter. Which wouldn’t be quite so bad if the affair hadn’t started when she was the Lolita age of fourteen. In typical “Kennedy clout” fashion, Michael evaded being charged with statutory rape in part because the three polygraph tests he took were conducted by companies that the Kennedys directly employed. Perhaps, then, the only form of “justice” that could come his way was the skiing accident that resulted in his death at the end of the same year.

And so, when Olivia Rodrigo perpetuates the bizarre and totally inaccurate trope about the Kennedys having class and integrity, well, it doesn’t bode well for Gen Z unlearning the undeserved association the Kennedys seem to have with “sophistication” and “glamor” in American politics. Something Gloria Swanson, who suffered the fallout of becoming collateral damage to Kennedy ambition and entitlement, was unafraid to speak out against. But that was after decades of silence and, therefore, on the verge of death. For she would only confess to her affair with Joe Sr. three years before she passed away, releasing her autobiography (ghostwritten, of course) in 1980.

“He was not very sophisticated insofar as knowing the right thing to do,” Swanson would “diplomatically” tell Barbara Walters in a 1981 interview promoting the book, called Swanson on Swanson, before ominously adding, “This man accomplished anything he wanted, including putting his son in the White House.” It was an inherited trait, this version of “class.” With the caveat that, in America, having class doesn’t mean you have to be magnanimous. In fact, quite the opposite—it just means you have to be willing to bulldoze over whatever (or whoever) happens to be in your way if you want to rise to the top.

[1] Genna Rivieccio, “The Literary Inspiration Behind Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘All-American Bitch’,” The Opiate, 10 September 2023 [3 November 2023].

[2] Kelly Bauer, “Chicago and Rigged Elections? The History Is Even Crazier Than You’ve Heard,Block Clubl Chicago, 24 October 2018 [3 November 2023].

[3] Associated Press, “50 years ago, Ted Kennedy veered off a Chappaquiddick bridge and caused a woman’s death,” USA Today, 16 July 2019 [3 November 2023].