The seemingly never-ending interest in the Kennedys shows no sign of abating. This is despite the fact that there are no family members in elective office and the liberalism they advocated has lost support in recent years.
The so-called Kennedy Mystique has dimmed a bit but even accounts that deal with narrow aspects of it can find an audience. Independent historian Joseph Esposito wrote an engaging and enjoyable book on President John F. Kennedy’s famous dinner for Nobel Prize winners.1
But there are also things we can still learn from broader books on the family.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who died in 2009, was one of the most effective lawmakers of his generation, yet his personal life was often embarrassing and reprehensible. The phrase “flawed giant” (the title of a well-known biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson by Robert Dallek) is also an apt description of Kennedy, who won a special election to succeed JFK in the Senate in 1962.
John A. Farrell, an acclaimed journalist and biographer, captures the good, bad and ugly in his new biography Ted Kennedy: A Life. While Farrell admires Kennedy and shares his ideological leanings, he is not blind to his subject’s faults.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who died in 2009, was one of the most effective lawmakers of his generation, yet his personal life was often embarrassing and reprehensible.
Farrell, who covered Kennedy while deputy Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe, likens Kennedy’s skills as a lawmaker, especially on healthcare, to those of the legendary Ted Williams on the baseball diamond.
“Kennedy would become one of the greatest senators, ever–as sublime at his work as Williams was at his—advancing progressive ideals through decades of political peril. And although he did not cross the river himself, Kennedy would be the torchbearer who witnessed, in his final days, the fulfillment of the century-old liberal vision of health care as a right—not a privilege—of every American,’’ Farrell writes. (26)
Kennedy died of cancer several months before his former colleagues passed the Affordable Care Act, more popularly referred to as Obamacare. Farrell provides a detailed description of Kennedy’s role and manages to discuss the legislative process without getting too bogged down in minutia.
Kennedy’s work on an array of other issues, including immigration and civil rights, shaped the world we live in today.
Kennedy’s efforts to liberalize immigration rules by helping to pass a 1965 law that expanded by the number of newcomers from non-European countries made the nation more diverse and created vast opportunities for many. Whether it is Google or your neighborhood Ethiopian restaurant, they were founded by immigrants who might never have been here save for the efforts of Kennedy and other Democratic lawmakers.
But champions of the American working class and “traditional’’ American values were not as enthusiastic. Some of the lower-skilled immigrants took jobs away from their American counterparts. Also, many people felt that the newcomers were not assimilating as easily as their European predecessors.
When LBJ, who had a fraught relationship with the Kennedys, signed the bill he erroneously predicted that it “will not reshape the structure of our daily lives.’’
Kennedy was often confronted by Irish American constituents who criticized the fact that the law would result in immigrants from the old world being outnumbered. He stuck to his guns but like many politicians had a foggy crystal ball about the long-term results. Many of those constituents who were loyal Democrats now lean heavily Republican. Kennedy lacked the skill, or perhaps the inclination, to find a way to simultaneously appeal to white working-class voters, African Americans, and more wealthy people. It was an ability his late brothers Jack and Bobby (especially the latter) had in abundance.
But even more damaging to Kennedy was his more than occasional moral weakness and blindness. That was most in evidence at the darkest time of his life, when after consuming an excess amount of alcohol he drove a car off a bridge, killing a young female political aide and seriously injuring himself. He not only left the scene of the accident, which took place on Chappaquiddick Island on Martha’s Vineyard, but lied about his actions.
Farrell describes the July 1969 accident and the aftermath in great detail and despite his admiration for Kennedy, is unsparing in his criticism.
“In retrospect, Kennedy’s behavior looks like the actions of a man who wants to establish an alibi as his friends concoct a story that absolves him. Or alternatively, a drunk driver waiting for the alcohol in his bloodstream to diminish,’’ the author writes. (221)
Kennedy had an extraordinary ability to compartmentalize and was still an effective lawmaker despite decades of abhorrent behavior, which lasted through much of the 1990s. He was a legislative juggernaut and colleagues on both sides of the aisle clamored to work with him. His odd couple partners included Sen. Orrin Hatch, the teetotaling Mormon lawmaker from Utah, with whom he worked on a range of health care bills.
He died before the “Me Too’’ movement began and thus was spared some of the consequences that people who behaved less badly than he did had to suffer.
He was a legislative juggernaut and colleagues on both sides of the aisle clamored to work with him. His odd couple partners included Sen. Orrin Hatch, the teetotaling Mormon lawmaker from Utah, with whom he worked on a range of health care bills.
One of Kennedy’s greatest political successes on Capitol Hill was his work in 1987 as a key player in torpedoing the nomination of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge and legal scholar Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Kennedy helped devise the Democrats’ strategy and gave an effective and somewhat hyperbolic speech, on the Senate floor. He famously said that having Bork, who was nominated by President Reagan, on the high court would result in a return to segregated lunch counters and back-alley abortions.
Farrell argues that Kennedy’s speech was “tenable,’’ in light of the views that Bork expressed in his decisions and scholarly writings. (457) But he contends that the person who really did Bork in was Bork. He concludes that Bork came across as “a fidgety, bearded professor with ideas that, if not merely extreme, at times seem to border on the kooky.’’ (463)
That is a strong dismissal of a judicial philosophy that, for better or worse, is supported by a considerable sector of the population. Farrell summarizes the views of conservatives but one of the book’s shortcomings is that he does not seek to explain why those on the right think the way they do. Those wanting to understand that topic would benefit from reading Matthew Continetti’s recently published history of American conservatism.2
Farrell also fails to talk about the effect that the Bork confirmation process had on the coarsening of political discourse and the notion of politics as war by another means. Many Democrats contend that it was the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 led by Speaker Newt Gingrich that planted the seeds of our current broken political system. Gingrich deserves a share of the blame but the Democrats strong efforts against Bork (in which another key player was Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Biden) dramatically raised the political temperature and prompted the GOP to seek revenge.
While Kennedy’s career was filled with many accomplishments, one key prize eluded him.
He was mentioned as a presidential candidate during several cycles but only ran in 1980 when he unsuccessfully challenged the weakened incumbent Jimmy Carter in the primaries. While liberals were salivating at the thought of Kennedy beating Carter (who was thought of as liberal by conservatives and as conservative by liberals) the majority of those who voted were less than enthused. Carter told aides that if Kennedy runs “I’ll whip his ass,’’ and made good on that promise.
Kennedy’s campaign tanked, though he was successful in raising certain domestic policy issues, such as his quest for government-sponsored health insurance. His best moment that year came when he gave a spellbinding speech at the Democratic National Convention in New York City in which he pledged that “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.’’
While liberals were salivating at the thought of Kennedy beating Carter (who was thought of as liberal by conservatives and as conservative by liberals) the majority of those who voted were less than enthused. Carter told aides that if Kennedy runs “I’ll whip his ass,’’ and made good on that promise.
This writer, who covered that event for Student Life, was on the convention floor that evening. He remembers the rapt attention most people in the audience paid to Kennedy. Even among the Missouri delegation, which was heavily supportive of Carter, there was tumultuous applause.
While the United States has had forty-five presidents (and forty-six presidencies, thanks to Grover Cleveland), very few are remembered. Kennedy’s impact on American history was greater than all but a handful of them.
His remarkable and often tragic life is one that could have been scripted by Shakespeare. Farrell has a great deal to work with and handles it well. He is respectful but not fawning. And those who love political history and complex characters will learn a lot from and enjoy Ted Kennedy: A Life.