David Matthew Kennedy: Banker, Statesman, Churchman

Book Review
Categories: Biography
Journal: 28:2

A future historian of twentieth-century Mormonism may well conclude that the agent of the most significant change in the post–World War II period was former Chicago banker and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury David M. Kennedy rather than one of the Church presidents. More than any other leader, Kennedy showed that, through quiet and patient diplomacy at the highest governmental levels, the Church could gain access to nations throughout the world, including such diverse governments as Soviet-bloc Poland and those with strong state religious traditions such as Greece and Portugal.

In retrospect, David Kennedy's origins seem quite improbable for an international banker and treasury secretary. A native of the small northeastern Utah farming town of Randolph, Kennedy grew up there and in Riverdale and Ogden. He attended Weber College for a time, married, and served as a missionary in Great Britain before he and his wife, Lenora Bingham Kennedy, moved to Washington, D.C. It was that move and the events following it that led Kennedy on the path that would place him in the highest ranks of power and prestige in the United States and the world. He worked for the Federal Reserve Board while completing a law degree at George Washington and later a graduate degree in banking at Rutgers. At the Federal Reserve he became closely associated with a number of influential figures including Marriner Eccles and the group that revolutionized the regulation of the American banking system. In 1946 he moved to Chicago to accept a position at Continental Illinois Bank, where he eventually became president and chairman of the board. He remained there until he accepted the treasury post in the first Nixon administration in 1969, subsequently serving as ambassador at large and ambassador to NATO before his retirement in 1973.

Such a career might well have seemed enough for one lifetime, but after his retirement Kennedy was called by Presidents Spencer W. Kimball and Nathan Eldon Tanner to serve as ambassador at large for the LDS church. Kennedy had remained active in the Church during his governmental and banking careers, serving as a bishop and as a counselor in a stake presidency. In his various religious and secular positions, he developed close relationships with a number of prominent Latter-day Saints as well as non-Mormon financial and political leaders throughout the world. As LDS ambassador at large, he had direct contact with President Kimball, and this enabled him to override others within the Church's hierarchy, bureaucracy, and informal political networks who tried to control or direct his activities. His outside connections and patient diplomacy facilitated the development of favorable relations for the Church in east Asia, and he obtained Church recognition in such European countries as Poland, Greece, and Portugal.

In trying to fathom the reasons for Kennedy's success, Hickman does not fall into the conventional trap of assigning all of the credit to the man's Mormonism. Recognizing that the core of his personal qualities "emerged from his childhood and youth in Randolph and Riverdale" (315), Hickman nevertheless understands that at certain crucial points Kennedy made choices that others of his background might not have risked. His decisions to move to Washington, to remain at the Federal Reserve Board, and to obtain degrees at George Washington and Rutgers were all crucial. In addition, as Hickman portrays him, Kennedy understood when to break with traditional Mormon attitudes. When George Romney suggested, for instance, that the two of them agree never to work on Sunday, Kennedy recognized from his previous government and banking careers that that would not always be practical. Unlike some Mormons, Kennedy eschewed the temptation to clannishness and to promote his fellow Saints in preference to others. Nor did he flaunt his religious convictions in public, observing the Church's teachings against the use of alcohol, for instance, without making those around him uncomfortable. Moreover, he recognized that the ultraconservative views of some Church members such as Ernest L. Wilkinson were often a hindrance in dealing with well-connected people outside the Mormon community.

In general, Hickman does not try to hide Kennedy's problems. He deals quite openly with the secretary's disagreement with Wright Patman over banking practice, with his friendship with the Italian scam artist Michele Sindona, with the setback Kennedy experienced in introducing bankcards at Continental Illinois, and in the opposition of J. Reuben Clark to the use of stone on the surface of a new chapel in Illinois. He also gives full consideration to Kennedy's conflicts with the state department and his inability to deal effectively with the press.

In some cases, however, Hickman seems too circumspect or defensive in writing about some of Kennedy's difficulties. Hickman discusses a disagreement with a Washington stake president over the naming of a counselor, for instance, without naming the president; he presents the positive evidence of Kennedy's openness toward blacks in the text but relegates the negative evidence to a note; and he fails to identify the source of the opposition to Kennedy's proposal to bring an East European poet to BYU. In considering Kennedy's poor relations with the press while treasury secretary, Hickman is very defensive (328–29), apparently failing to recognize that any person who accepts a public office assumes the burdens of that office. One of those burdens includes the necessity of dealing with the public through the press. That Kennedy's first goal was not to remain in office is irrelevant. Kennedy had to govern effectively, which he could not do if he could not explain himself and his policies effectively.

This issue relates to an interpretive question that Hickman could have addressed, and that might have led us to understand Kennedy better. What are we to make of the apparent inconsistency between Kennedy's masterful effectiveness in relations with world leaders and other businessmen and his apparent inability to deal effectively with the press and with some members of congress? In the first instance, Kennedy developed what he called the "Kabuki" style of diplomacy, which was a means of dealing indirectly with issues in a way that left an opponent an avenue to save face. By using this technique in diplomatic negotiations, Kennedy allowed his opponents the freedom not to commit to anything in advance of the completion of negotiations. Instead of adapting that style to his relations with the press and congress, Kennedy insisted that he would not "fudge" (329). On the surface, it is difficult to see the difference between the substance of fudging on controversial issues and the Kabuki style of diplomacy. Why, for instance, did Kennedy go to such great lengths to develop personal relationships in negotiations with opponents on the world and business scene and eschew such efforts with opponents in congress and with representatives of the press? Why was he able to find a way to allow one group to save face and not the other? Hickman does not tell us.

These are, however, minor problems. In general, the context within which the events took place is briefly but sufficiently drawn, and we understand how Kennedy fit into the times in which he lived. On the whole, this is an excellent biography worthy of the attention of any serious scholar or interested layman concerned with the history of twentieth-century American business, government, and religion.