It was lucky for Senator Edward Moore Kennedy, and for Massachusetts and the country, that he was able — unlike his murdered brothers John and Robert, and siblings Joe Jr. and Kathleen — to “live to comb gray hair,” in the Irish phrase he sadly evoked in eulogizing yet another chestnut-haired Kennedy who died young, nephew John F. Kennedy Jr.
With the years, nearly a half century in the Senate, Ted Kennedy was able to help achieve much of John and Robert’s liberal dreams and then some. And with time he was finally able, in his 60s, to overcome the demons — manifest in his unbridled drinking and womanizing — that repeatedly threatened that legislative legacy, and did end his dream to follow John as president.
A life so consequential, and by turns tragic and triumphant, is catnip for biographers. Yet when an editor asked John A. Farrell to tell Kennedy’s story, Farrell wondered: Is there anything fresh to say? Was there any worth in recounting Kennedy’s life now? He correctly decided there was. With right-wing reaction and authoritarianism on the rise, with congressional Republicans cowed from cutting deals with Democrats by their hardline voters’ opposition to compromise, what better time to look at the legacy of the deal-making senator who embodied both liberal idealism and pragmatism? It’s a record that encompassed landmark laws on health care, civil rights, education, immigration, criminal justice, and more.
Farrell’s “Ted Kennedy” is also instructive at a time when Democrats are disparaged as a party of college-educated elites often alienating once-loyal working-class voters. That dynamic, the reader is reminded, was evident decades ago — in Boston’s busing wars, Richard M. Nixon’s plays for “the Silent Majority,” the rise of “Reagan Democrats.”
Thirteen years after Kennedy’s death of brain cancer at 77, much archived material remained unavailable. Yet Farrell, a former Boston Globe reporter in Washington, drew on both his own experience with Kennedy, and the insights of cooperative Kennedy family members, friends, and advisers, including previously unpublished diary entries from family chronicler Arthur Schlesinger Jr., as well as the vast oral histories on the Kennedys.
“Ted Kennedy: A Life” also benefits from Farrell’s work on previous biographies of two men with deep connections to Kennedy and his brothers, Nixon and former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, another Irish American son of Boston. The book is perhaps strongest in Farrell’s accounting of the complex relationship between Kennedy and Nixon, who, having been vanquished by John in 1960, feared Ted would challenge him in 1972.
Farrell provides evidence in Nixon’s own words that, where Kennedy saw societal needs and moved to address them by law — cancer research, for example — the Republican president sought the same ends merely to deprive his potential rival of credit. Kennedy, ever the pragmatist, was pleased to play along, to get results. He once conceded to Farrell that the worst tactical mistake of his career was rejecting Nixon’s final offer on a universal health care plan. It would be 36 years before that goal — what Kennedy called the cause of his life — was realized; he died months before President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law.
For all of Farrell’s access to Kennedy’s circle, his book is no hagiography. The author plumbs the public record about Chappaquiddick, the familiar shorthand for the senator’s drive off a small bridge on Martha’s Vineyard that killed his companion, Mary Jo Kopechne, on a July night in 1969. The account is hard reading, and Farrell is suitably unforgiving of Kennedy’s failure to quickly go for help once he emerged, concussed, from the dark waters. (My one quibble relates to these chapters: Farrell repeatedly calls Kopechne and the five other women partying with Kennedy and his friends “the boiler room girls,” unnecessarily employing the sexist language of that time to refer to their recent work on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign.)
Long after Chappaquiddick, the senator continued boozing and philandering so excessively that intimates speculated he was inviting trouble, so he’d be forced to forfeit the standard he’d inherited from his brothers. Farrell’s accounts of Kennedy’s louche behavior through the 1980s (he and wife Joan finally divorced early in the decade) culminate with the 1991 scandal in which, after a weekend of partying with Uncle Ted at the family’s Palm Beach, Fla., compound, a nephew was charged and ultimately acquitted of rape. “Kennedy was, fundamentally, unrepentant,” Farrell writes.
The senator, in the memoir published after his death in 2009, attests to Farrell’s insight into his reckless pleasure-seeking. “It was all part of my desire to escape, to keep moving, to avoid painful memories,” he wrote. That imagery echoed Farrell’s reporting in the Globe 18 years before: Kennedy, Farrell said, was like a great white shark, ceaselessly moving to escape his feelings about the many losses he’d suffered. Kennedy sent Farrell a doodled shark, signed “Ted the Shark.”
The many paradoxes of Ted Kennedy are reflected here: Teddy, the youngest of Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s nine children, the family jester amid princelings, who came to bear the heavy crown of the father’s expectations. The painfully inarticulate pol who delivered some of the most eloquent paeans to liberalism in memory. The back-slapping public man whose emotional distance from his family contributed to the struggles and substance abuse of his first wife and all three children. The guy with all the advantages who ever felt otherwise.
“The disadvantage of my position is being constantly compared with … brothers of such superior ability,” Kennedy once said. Yet for all their strengths, John and Robert Kennedy did not excel as senators. It was Ted who grew to become “The Lion of the Senate.”
TED KENNEDY: A Life
By John A. Farrell
Penguin Press, 752 pages, $40
Jackie Calmes, a longtime Washington journalist, is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and author of “Dissent: The Radicalization of the Republican Party and Its Capture of the Court.”