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By (April 1, 2009) No Comment

Last Lion

by Staff of The Boston Globe
Edited by Robert Canellos
Simon and Schuster, 2009

The quadrennially possible presidential candidate, Edward Moore Kennedy, better known as Ted, was an eighteen-year veteran of the U.S. Senate when he stepped to the podium to address the Democratic National Convention of 1980. After years of putting it off he’d finally taken a shot at the nation’s highest office, but that night in Madison Square Garden, his primary opponent, incumbent President Jimmy Carter, already had the nomination wrapped up. As the new Ted Kennedy biography, Last Lion recounts, Kennedy’s speech would be the Convention’s most memorable moment:

The speech turned out to be a triumph, Ted’s manifesto of a lifetime. It was a defense of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and drew much of its power from the idea that Reagan, if elected, would try to erase many of the gains of American liberalism from the New Deal onward… But Ted would have none of that:

The commitment I seek is not to outworn ideas, but to old values that will never wear out,’ he declared. ‘Programs may sometimes become obsolete, but the idea of fairness always endures. Circumstances may change, but the work of compassion must continue. It is surely correct that we cannot solve problems by throwing money at them; it is also correct that we dare not throw out our national problems onto a scrap heap of inattention and indifference.

He finished with an emotional plea that would be remembered for decades: “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.”

Kennedy’s story begins much earlier than this dramatic career milestone and stretches far beyond it. Born in 1932, he was the ninth (and last) child of an up and coming family now firmly on the path that would one day lead them to become the most powerful and influential American political dynasty in the nation’s history.

An instructive observation made early on by Canellos et al (henceforth simply Canellos, for convenience’s sake) helps to explain the contradictions in their subject: “Teddy grew up with both the rich kid’s sense of superiority and the youngest child’s sense of inferiority.”

For the youngest in any large family it can be easy to get lost in the shuffle. And, though by all accounts a genuinely loving family, the Kennedy’s were also renowned for encouraging competition and games of one-upmanship between siblings. Parental praise was something that had to be fought for:

[Ted] realized early that his role in the family was that of court jester, and he was a natural at it. He loved jokes and stories, and would entertain others with his antics, from trying to revive his gasping goldfish to accidentally setting a trash can on fire at the Palace Hotel in the Swiss resort of St. Moritz. He knew his mischief-making was considered charming.

In general, Canellos does an excellent job distilling Kennedy’s privileged, chaotic and sometimes lonely childhood and trying to identify how it colored his future career. For instance, some interviewees attribute his sensitivity toward society’s vulnerable and his empathic nature to always being the new kid at one of the ten different schools he’d attend by age eleven, instilling in him a clearer sense of life’s uncertainties.

There’s no doubt Kennedy benefited from the wealth and connections of his family, and the burdens and obligations of noblesse oblige seem a small price to pay for such advantages. How many of us, lacking that wealth and those connections, would be able to overcome ejection from Harvard for cheating, or land a job as an assistant DA of Boston fresh out of law school, or be put forth as a candidate for the United States Senate at the age of 30?

Ted Kennedy campaigns in 1962

In tune with this sentiment, Last Lion does not overly psychoanalyze its subject and never makes excuses for his mistakes and failings – in fact at times it candidly admits its bafflement at some of Kennedy’s lapses in judgment. It gently chides: at times he should have known better and should have done better. But just as importantly in terms of the book’s credibility, Last Lion stops short of being a simple condemnation of Kenney based on his character flaws. These flaws – found so repugnant by critics perhaps because of the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ air about them – never eclipse the jovial and well-beloved man who exists beneath the fame and tragedy. His sister Eunice described that side of the man this way:

He was always more outgoing and friendly than any of us. He has always been the one most interested in people. He has developed his natural extroversion to the point that all of us envy him and love to be with him.

His natural people skills were helpful in politics as well:

Unlike his brothers, Teddy seemed to revel in the hand-shaking and backslapping of life on the campaign trail. “One of his abiding strengths was that he genuinely like talking to people,” says Gerard Doherty, who ran signature drives with Ted. “He’d talk to telephone poles if he could, whereas Bobby and Jack were a little more uncomfortable.”

Of course Ted Kennedy shared in the triumphs of Jack Kennedy’s exhilarating rise to the senate and then the presidency, and enjoyed his own elevation to the senate where for a time he shared Robert Kennedy’s companionship before the latter went off on his own seemingly charmed presidential campaign in 1968. The tragedies of those times don’t need much discussion here. Several years before his own assassination, Robert Kennedy miscalculated the precipitous change in family fortunes after Ted Kennedy broke his back in a plane crash:

If my mother hadn’t had any more children after her first four she would have nothing now. My brothers Joe and Jack are dead and Kathleen is dead and Rosemary is in a nursing home. She would be left with nothing if she had only had four. I guess the only reason we’ve survived is that there are too many of us. There are more of us than there is trouble.

Ted (Center), with Robert and Jack

He underestimated trouble’s reach. There had been the death of his brother Joe, shot down in World War II, and the plane crash that had killed his sister Kathleen. There was the incapacitation of his sister Rosemary (the result of a lobotomy) and that of his father from a stroke. There was President Kennedy’s assassination, brother Ted’s broken back, and of course his own murder, so that Ted Kennedy found himself, at age thirty-six, the effective patriarch of a large and still growing family, as Canellos relates:

Ted now felt the obligation to lead the family, caring not only for his own children while trying to salvage his own strained marriage but taking care of the children and widows of his slain brothers, a towering task in and of itself, considering that Ethel was pregnant with hers and Bobby’s eleventh child.

More than that, the baby brother felt the responsibility to honor both Jack and Bobby by picking up their fallen standard. “There was this crushing drive and desire,” John Culver says, “to fulfill their agendas, and be worthy of his brother’s initiatives, and at the same time continue his own. And he had to be the father figure for all these children. It was extraordinary that he was able to just put one foot in front of the other.”

Canellos does some fine work exploring the tandem personal and political stress placed on Kennedy after 1968. His wife Joan would endure her third miscarriage and slowly begin to sink into alcoholism. His son Teddy Jr. would lose a leg to cancer, and his son Patrick battled drug addiction.

And when it comes to tragedies, we cannot forget the 800 pound gorilla in the room. This is the litmus test for any Ted Kennedy biography: Chappaquiddick. Throughout its four-hundred pages, Last Lion is fair, even-tempered, and calm in applying both scrutiny and praise. Canellos handles this famously thorny episode with aplomb and tells the story of Chappaquiddick the only right way: straight. For nearly forty pages the facts are laid out: interviews with Kennedy, party attendees, first responders to the scene and investigators are relayed, inquest results are included, time lines are examined, and none of the contradictions are glossed over. No punches are pulled. It would be a fool’s errand to attempt exonerating Kennedy of his responsibility for the accident, and Canellos’ account is refreshingly reserved. He gets to the crux:

It eventually became clear that the central moral question at Chappaquiddick was not whether he was taking Mary Jo Kopechne to the ferry or to the beach, or even if he had been drunk or sober. It was: Why didn’t he get help? Was his failure one of princely indulgence, assuming he could do anything and have others clean up, or something closer to the opposite – the faltering of a grief-stricken and damaged psyche, unable to confront his responsibilities?

Ted Kennedy shouldn’t be judged on Chappaquiddick alone; his legislative accomplishments must be seen to at least partially balance the scales before a final accounting. As Canellos puts it:

…in the long season of Ted Kennedy’s political career, any averaging out would have to take into account his indefatigable exertions on behalf of people in need, at those times when to them and, in a way, to him, too, everything was at stake.

Despite the constant pressure of the presidency’s spectre, in the end, the role of legislator best suited Kennedy’s personality and strengths. According to Canellos, he was a natural:

He knew how to use his emotional intelligence to read people and build alliances. He was aware of his own intellectual deficiencies and was determined to compensate for them through hard work, balanced between a few important, high-profile issues and laserlike attention to the less glamorous but vital constituent service side of the job.

And his record is impressive. In light of it, you can understand (or at least smile at) Kennedy’s reaction when a friend said to him:

“You’re nuts to beat yourself to death like this on the Senate floor… Passing a new law won’t be any more glorious for you than the reputation you’ve made. Some people say you and Daniel Webster are the greatest senators of all time.”

Ted seemed taken aback, not by the prospect of retirement but at the suggestion that another senator might have achieved as much as he had.

“What did Webster do?”

In 1964 he rose to deliver his first major speech in the Senate and supported a civil rights bill that would ban racial discrimination in employment and public accommodation. In 1965 he put forth a bill, signed into law, reforming immigration policy, which had previously utilized a racial quota system that discriminated against non-Northern Europeans seeking to come to America.

After the Supreme Court declared congressional districts of varying size to be unconstitutional because some would by default receive more representation, Kennedy led a fight to defeat a bill that would delay standardizing the size of congressional districts, helping to secure the essence of “one man, one vote.” He also co-sponsored the bill to lower the voting age to 18, the age of legal eligibility for the draft.

In the face of hostile Republican domination of the government in the age of Reagan, Kennedy was able to extend the Voting Rights Act in 1981 and was able to stop Republicans from repealing the Davis-Bacon Act which required workers employed on public works projects to receive the prevailing wage of that area. He also engineered the passage of The Civil Rights Restoration Act, which required all institutions that accepted federal money to adhere to federal antidiscrimination laws (this was done over a Reagan veto).

Staking out a place at the forefront of “cutting edge” social issues, Kennedy cosponsored bills such as the Employment non-Discrimination Act to bar workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and the “Ryan White Act” that now provides more than half of all Americans living with AIDS the means to manage their disease. In 1990 he steered the Americans with Disabilities Act past an intransigent Bush administration, providing “millions of access ramps, [and] wheelchair-accessible restrooms” in what Canellos calls “one of the most sweeping civil rights bills of the century.”

As early as 1966, Ted Kennedy had recognized the need to help the poor procure health care, and he secured funding that eventually yielded 850 clinics in poor communities nationwide, but his son’s battle with cancer provided him a focus for most of the rest of his career:

Kennedy redoubled his push for national health care and helped draft successful legislation that started up health maintenance organizations, to be known as HMOs, seen as a way to make health care more affordable. He obtained increased research funding and broadened access for poor women and children with the Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program, known as WIC.

In 1971 he won funding that quadrupled the amount spent nationally on cancer research. He’s the father of COBRA, that lets people temporarily hold on to their healthcare after losing employment, as well as HIPAA, a law which limited insurer’s ability to deny health care coverage based on preexisting conditions.

As Canellos points out, Kennedy “provided health care to tens of millions of people, and funded cures for diseases that struck tens of millions more around the world.” And further: “the multicultural America of the twenty-first century is the fruit of his legislation.” Kennedy is responsible for setting “the boundaries for the conservative era in American politics.” But even these summaries fall short of the scale of Edward Moore Kennedy’s importance in the development of a more just and equitable America:

Ted’s record isn’t limited to the roughly 2,500 major bills he authored over forty-six years, of which at least 300 became law. In whole areas of policy – civil rights, immigration, health care and education – he dominated the Congress for almost a half century.

Other than Supreme Court justices, he was the only architect of the liberal transformation of the 1960s to make it into the 1970s, and he kept fighting well into the twenty-first century…

While presidents will always be judged by how they confronted the challenges of their moment in history, Kennedy, from his perch in the Senate, defined policy over a longer term: his accomplishments belong to the glacial movements that shape the challenges of presidents.

And in what might be his last exertion, the Lion in the winter of his life looked to pass the standard he’d carried largely on his own for the last forty years and as it were, to “pass the torch to a new generation.” As contemporary political observers know well, Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries last year. The extent to which his clout helped Obama in the late contest against Hilary Clinton is unclear, but it seemed to coincide with a momentum shift that eventually landed the nomination in Obama’s hands.

After the shocking news of his brain cancer and the harrowing surgery he underwent, Kennedy rallied one last time and undertook a potentially lethal flight to the 2008 Democratic National Convention, to confer definitively his family’s legacy, his most prized possession, to the next, best hope.

Echoing his own words from over a quarter century earlier, he placed the laurels firmly on Barack Obama’s head, declaring, “the work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on.”

Thomas J. Daly graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Rowan University in New Jersey. He is currently studying to become a Certified Paralegal at Boston University.

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