The Best of the Kennedys?

Edward Kennedy and the Hour
By Neal Gabler

By the time Edward Kennedy died, in August 2009, he had represented Massachusetts in the United States Senate for nearly 47 years — longer than any of his brothers had lived. He was eulogized as one of the most important legislators in American history, an assessment reflecting not only the affection he enjoyed on both sides of the aisle, but also genuine awe at his achievements. Over the course of five decades, Ted Kennedy had sponsored nearly 700 bills that became law, and left his imprint on scores of others. The Voting Rights Act of 1965; the Immigration and Nationality Act of that same year; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 — all bore his influence or were advanced by his efforts.

None of this was foreordained — or even all that likely. He was a Kennedy, of course, and Kennedys were born to advantage; but as a child and young man, he was seen within the family not merely as the last of the Kennedy brothers, but the least: the least talented, serious, capable, promising. The press, initially, saw him that way, too. During his first campaign for the Senate, at the age of 30 in 1962, he was derided as President John F. Kennedy’s callow kid brother — a man so obviously unqualified that his election, in the view of The New York Times, could only demean “the dignity of the Senate and the democratic process.” Kennedy won that race, and set to work defying expectations. Still, the long, consequential career that followed would to the end remain, in profound ways, a struggle — against the fates, the tides of history and, in no small part, his own failings.

That struggle and its significance are the subjects of “Catching the Wind,” the first installment of a two-volume treatment by Neal Gabler, the author of well-regarded books on Walt Disney and Walter Winchell. Kennedy’s expansive life has yielded no shortage of biographies, but Gabler’s is on its way toward becoming the most complete and ambitious. As a character study it is rich and insightful, frank in its judgments but deeply sympathetic to the man Gabler regards as “the most complex of the Kennedys.” The story of Ted’s brother Bobby is typically written in two acts: before and after the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. Ted’s time at center stage, so much longer than Bobby’s, was more varied, consisting of numerous acts, twists, turns and apparent endings — less a linear progression than, as Gabler describes it, a “cycle of sin and expiation,” loss and renewal.

Within weeks of entering office, Kennedy talked about staying there the rest of his life. He adored the Senate’s traditions; he adapted quickly to its rhythms and norms. And, to the surprise of many, he was willing to work. John Kennedy had served eight years in the Senate without ever investing much of himself in it; he was — often visibly — bored by its slow-moving machinery. But Ted Kennedy relished it: the pressing of levers, the working of gears, the intricate business of cutting a deal. No less important, as Gabler writes, “there was a joy in him, a great love of people.” He drew them in — whether voters back home or the Southern septuagenarians who ran the Senate — won them over, made them willing, even eager, to support him. He was the most natural politician in his family, a close match in temperament to his grandfather John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, who had taught him, Gabler notes, “what empathy meant.”

“Catching the Wind” lends a cinematic sweep to Kennedy’s legislative crusades — for example, his failed if noble campaign in 1965 to ban use of the poll tax, that old, racist roadblock to the African-American vote, in state elections. (The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, had prohibited its use in federal elections. The year after Kennedy’s effort foundered, the Supreme Court ruled the poll tax unconstitutional at the state level.) Gabler makes these battles exciting, though at times he seems intent on making everything exciting; scenes are often over-egged, amped up by incantation: “And then Ted quoted at length, great length, from a speech, a remarkable speech,” reads a typical passage. “Richard Nixon was wounded now, badly wounded, wounded and reeling from his wounds,” begins another.

The reader needs no such prodding; the drama, as it develops, is real enough. The swiftness with which Ted Kennedy went from being teased by Republicans as “Little Brother” to becoming the patriarch of a political dynasty — the bearer, as he himself put it, of his martyred brothers’ “fallen standard” — is unfathomable, however familiar the story remains. In 1968, when Robert was killed in Los Angeles while running for president, Ted was only 36. The pressure upon him to carry forward the campaign was instantaneous: One of Bobby’s aides cornered Ted on the flight that carried his brother’s body back to New York, pleading, “You gotta run.” Kennedy knew himself well enough not to accept a draft — he was deeply depressed, immobilized by grief. But he had lost control over himself and his future. Tragedy begat tragedy, and Los Angeles led, in some indirect but inexorable fashion, to Chappaquiddick in July 1969. The death of Mary Jo Kopechne in Kennedy’s car was, as Gabler writes, “indelible — a stain he bore that no amount of penance could erase.”

And Gabler suggests it was more than that. Because Kennedy, he writes, was “the face and the voice of modern liberalism,” Chappaquiddick cost liberalism its moral authority — at a time, the end of the ’60s, when that authority was already waning. “Catching the Wind” is presented as something of a parable — “This book,” Gabler states, “is about political morality” — but the concept never quite coheres. By “political morality,” the author seems to mean, exclusively, a concern for the “voiceless and powerless,” as Kennedy often put it. There is no discussion of its conservative counterpoint, that system of belief that saw abortion and homosexuality, for example, as morally intolerable and the death penalty as defensible. Instead, Kennedy’s foil, in Gabler’s account, is the amoral Nixon and his politics of resentment and racial division. This is accurate enough in itself, but less than the full story that the book aims to tell. The decline of liberalism, in any event, had at least as much to do with economic stagnation as it did with moral authority or the imperfections of liberal apostles.

Kennedy, for his part, felt the winds shifting. In the wake of Bobby’s death and Chappaquiddick, as the book describes, he redoubled his commitment to be “the senator of all those in need.” Yet the book ends with Kennedy on the run from a rock-throwing mob in his own hometown of Boston, which, in 1974, had exploded over the busing of Black students into overwhelmingly white school districts. “You’re a disgrace to the Irish!” a protester shouted, one of the milder comments that day. Never mind that Kennedy was not a particularly strong proponent of busing; what the crowd made clear, as Gabler writes in a powerful closing, was that “he was no longer one of them.” To the white working class from which the Kennedys had risen, Ted was now “just another condescending liberal who favored minority rights over their rights.” As Gabler’s next volume will no doubt describe, Kennedy’s response was not to change course. He would simply sail harder.

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