The Noblesse Oblige
Jack learns the financial details of the family business, but he can’t shake the feeling he’s being groomed for something bigger
By John Armstrong
We didn’t go boating the next day after all. Bobby wanted me to go over some things with him and by late morning we’d been through a forest’s worth of paper; reports, earnings sheets, cost analysis breakdowns and just about everything else you can use to give a man headache and eyestrain. It was more of what I’d gone over the day before and it all added up to what I already knew, but I said nothing. I needed to see what it led to and we’d get there when Bobby decided we would.
When we finished with that he wanted me to come downtown with him and we ended up on a tour of developments the family already had underway and these were all of a kind, too; the family hadn’t kept all the loot they’d taken in, by any stretch. They’d done many good things with it and were doing more – hospitals and schools and research money for the sciences, grants for artists, money for training and bursaries for continuing education. I could see my grandmother’s hand in that, and Bobby’s, too. But Joe had gone along; I’ll give him that. Does it matter why someone does the right thing, really? Does it count for less if he can easily afford it? They would never miss a penny of the millions they’d spent on others but did that diminish it? Ask the kids getting a hot lunch at school or the guy getting his teeth fixed for free and see what he says.
Still, it was a sales job. The whole thing was blatantly designed to put the family in a good light, and I said so.
“We just want you to see what we’ve been doing, where the family is headed. There’s a phrase in French, noblesse oblige. You know it?”
Of course I did. Any boy who read about knights in armor and King Arthur knew it was one of the tenets of chivalry.
“It’s the obligation of the privileged to behave honorably, with charity and nobility.”
“Exactly,” Bobby said, “and that’s what we’ve been modeling the family’s activities on. No one could deny we’re very privileged. Like dad says, we’re as close to royalty as this nation has ever had. He quotes a man named Kemble: ‘If noblesse oblige, then royalty must do so even more.’
“I’ve never been prouder of our family than I am now. And we haven‘t even really started.”
To tell the truth, I believed him. Bobby was a good man – if he was ruthless at times, it was a testament to him he wasn’t more so, given who he’d learned from. And a degree of ruthlessness is necessary in a leader, as I’d learned myself this last while. I believed him, and more than that, he believed what he was saying and when Bobby was sincere about something it was almost impossible to resist following him. Inspiring, is the word I’d use.
So I confess I was feeling somewhat receptive to the pitch but what my part in this was supposed to be I still didn’t get. Unless it was exactly what it seemed like.
“And you want me to be your underboss, help with these good works?” Using the old Church phrase made me wonder suddenly if this was just Joe feeling the cold breath of the reaper on his neck and trying to buy a seat in heaven. I don’t know how much the old man believed in God and the Devil or if he did at all but I could easily see him figuring the odds and deciding it would be smart to hedge the bet, just in case.
“Christ, no – forget all that ‘underboss’ and ‘capo’ nonsense. The time for that was 40 years ago. The Families talk a lot about being businesslike but they don’t see it’s time to take that to its logical conclusion and simply be businesses, but mature ones. International corporations, involved beyond our own borders, where we can really accomplish something.” That was the word he’d used before, accomplish. It was a perfectly innocent word, evoking hard work and well-earned results but I still didn’t like it.
“Such as what,” I asked.
“Let’s leave that for when we talk to Dad. He can tell you the rest.”
…When Bobby was sincere about something it was almost impossible to resist following him. Inspiring, is the word I’d use.
And that was where we left it. We were home in time for dinner, a big sit- down affair with Bobby and Ethel’s kids, all eleven of them and assorted boyfriends and girlfriends to fill in any empty spaces at the table. I won’t put all the names down or it would read like something from Exodus: Robert and Ethel begat plenty, let’s just say.
What was surprising to me was how fast they’d turned into real people, with lives and intrigues of their own. When I left the oldest was proudly showing people her “grownup teeth”, what there were of them. Now she was in college and arguing philosophy with her parents, “everything should be free” and “no-one should have to dig ditches and collect trash.”
I had a phase like that, too, and St. Francis knocked it out of me. It’s a lovely thought but when you’re through thinking lovely thoughts, ditches still need digging and trash won’t haul itself to the dump. What never occurred to me until the fathers at St. Frank pointed it out was, it’s arrogant to think that all the people painting fences and cutting lawns despise their lives; go up to the next gardener you see and tell him how sorry you feel for him, having to work in the dirt like that. Then duck.
(I don’t mean it’s all done by smiling workers with a song on their lips and pride in their hearts for a job well done, but I think they’d all tell you it puts food on the table and shoes on feet; all “equal opportunity” means is, if you really dislike driving a truck, you’re free to quit and go try something else.)
So the plight of unwashed humanity was batted around and the plates of ham and green beans and mashed potatoes were passed and I stayed out of it. Young or old, people who tell you how things ought to be always seem to imply that you ought to get up and go out and make it so. I always remember my manners and say, ‘After you, my dear Alphonse.’
There were a few other adults I didn’t know down at the other end of the table, business partners of some kind I presumed, and introductions were sparse with the general hubbub of that many young people in one room. Throughout the meal I heard the door several times and people going up the stairs. When we were done Bobby said we were going up to the library, by which he meant me, him, his other guests and whoever was waiting upstairs. I caught Vanessa’s eye and she patted her mouth with a napkin, showing me two crossed fingers. This was surely the promised talk with Joe that would explain everything. He hadn’t been at the table. Ethel said he was on a special diet and the cook took all his meals to him upstairs. I pictured him up there in a dark room, drinking a nice warm glass of blood.
If he was, he’d wiped his chin before we all got there. He was in a big leather chair behind his desk in the same thick sweater he’d had on the night before. There was a decanter on the desk and a glass with an inch or so of pale brown liquor in it. That was a surprise because Joe was famously abstinent, teetotal to the extent that he’d offered his children larger shares of his estate if they followed his example. It was a fine joke on those who did; he was in his 80s now and still here. You could get very, very thirsty waiting for Joe Kennedy to die.
He saw me looking at the glass and said his first words to me since I’d arrived: “It’s medicinal. The doctor says I need it for my blood.”
His voice was just as I remembered it. He had the same broad Kennedy accent which people mock so often, and that I have always detested because it’s so utterly fake. Born a second-generation, North End paddy Joe was determined to step up in class and that meant shedding the singsong Irish lilt he grew up with. Aiming to set the Kennedys up among the Brahmins of Boston society he adopted their way of speaking but what came out was a caricature of it, as over the top as a nightstick twirling Mick policeman begorra’ing in a vaudeville show.
Bobby closed the door, directed people to chairs, and brought glasses around. It wasn’t a small room but by the time he was finished it was just about filled. When everyone was settled he said, “John, we’ll get to introductions in a minute but this is a very special occasion and I think it calls for a toast before we get down to business.” He lifted his glass up and said, “To the United States of America.”
I had no quibble with that. I love my country, though I don’t go around with a flag on my lapel. There were some “Hear hears” and other noises of approval around the room and I watched Joe take a small sip, about enough for a large sparrow. He had a hard time with the glass, his hands all bent up as they were. He had to lift it up with the wrist cocked awkwardly.
“All right then.” Bobby went over and leaned back against a corner of the desk. “Let’s get to it – I know my nephew is sitting there in suspense, anxious to hear what we’ve cooked up here.
“John, the men here with us are all very successful businessmen in a number of areas, from transportation to manufacturing, sales, and advertising. They’ve all travelled to be here tonight and you’re the reason for it. This is the first step in something that’s been in the planning for almost 20 years, or maybe I should say it’s the final step in the first phase of it.
“How would you like to be president?”
Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized regularly in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.
THE EX-PRESS, November 14, 2015