The Magazine

Camelost

Not one, but two hagiographies of Edward Kennedy.

Mar 30, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 27 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Last Lion

The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy

by the Boston Globe

edited by Peter S. Canellos

Simon & Schuster, 480 pp., $28

Ted Kennedy

Scenes from an Epic Life

by the Boston Globe

Simon & Schuster, 208 pp., $28

It is, perhaps, fitting that, as metropolitan newspapers fade from the scene, the Boston Globe should remind us why this is happening by producing not one but two hagiographies of Edward Kennedy. The 77-year-old Kennedy is mortally ill, and certainly entitled to the victory lap he is taking in the political culture; but these two portentous volumes--the dimensions of the second, Ted Kennedy: Scenes from an Epic Life, are ideal for coffee tables--tell us considerably more about the Globe than about Senator Kennedy.

First, there is the "last lion" business. Kennedy has long since grown accustomed to being referred to in the press as the "liberal lion" of the Senate--fair enough--but now that his days in office are numbered, the cliché machine has anointed him the "last lion," the last of a vanishing breed, the last giant to stalk the corridors of the Senate, we shall not see his like again, and so on.

Oh, please. The last time this phrase was employed in a book title, by the late William Manchester, the subject was Winston Churchill. Surely the Globe isn't drawing a comparison? More to the point, when Leverett Saltonstall, a far more distinguished representative of Massachusetts, retired from office in 1967 after 30 years' service as governor and senator, and at the same age as
Kennedy, the Globe failed to serve up a worshipful account of his career. Of course, Saltonstall was a Republican.

Moreover, since the dawn of the republic, the Senate has been routinely populated with "last lions," many of whom--Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, John Sherman,
Robert La Follette, Henry Cabot Lodge, George Norris, Richard Russell, Hubert Humphrey, et al.--left a far more significant mark on the politics of their times than Edward Kennedy. In statesmanship, as in life, there is a qualitative difference between longevity and distinction, and Edward Kennedy's primary distinction--apart from his ex officio fame as a Kennedy--has been his election, and subsequent multiple reelections, by the voters of Massachusetts.

Then there is the fundamental dishonesty of the Globe's approach. Ted Kennedy is what used to be called a lip-reader's book--lots of pictures and informative captions, separated by easy-to-read blocks of anodyne text--and certainly slick by the standards of the trade. But Last Lion purports to be a serious account of Kennedy's career, and his impact on American history. This would have been easier to accomplish if the Globe writers had undertaken an objective assessment of their subject, but that is not the intent here. The point of Last Lion is to transform Kennedy's undistinguished tenure in the Senate, and his thwarted ambition in national politics, into a kind of virtual triumph. To be sure, to pull it off would require the narrative skills of a gymnast--to twist the facts to shape the thesis--and the Globe writers are only newspapermen.

Edward Kennedy was the youngest of the nine children of Joseph and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, and lost in the family shuffle, below the radar of his father's maniacal ambition. He was famously expelled from Harvard for hiring a substitute to take a Spanish exam; but unlike his elder brothers, he held his own on the football team. In 1962, having barely reached the constitutional age to serve, he was elected to his brother John's Senate seat, which had been kept warm during the intervening two years by a faithful family retainer. In the general election he defeated the estimable George Lodge, a victory for the Irish mafia over Brahmin Boston; but it was in the bitter Democratic primary that his rival, Edward McCormack, pronounced the words that would haunt Kennedy ever afterwards: "If your name were Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore
Kennedy, your candidacy would be a farce."

The great fulcrum of Kennedy's career, of course, is Chappaquiddick. Before 1969 he was a plausible Democratic aspirant for the presidency, and was climbing the greasy pole of Senate influence. After 1969 he was demoted in the Senate hierarchy by, of all people, Robert Byrd; and his 1980 campaign against a sitting Democratic president remains a classic in the annals of political egotism and self-destruction.