Ted's Last Hurrah
The authorized version of the Kennedy myth receives one more installment.
Sep 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 02 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Many accidents of fate conspired to place so great a burden upon Ted's unlikely shoulders. In contrast to his elder brothers, Joe Jr. and Jack, Teddy was not bred or reared for greatness. He was the baby of the family, the apple of his father's eye, and his mother's well, it's unclear, from his telling, what role he played in Rose Kennedy's world. Ted's undoubtedly genuine and often touching expressions of love for her contrast starkly with, as we say in Washington, the facts on the ground, at least as you find them here. Having deposited her ninth and final child with her team of nannies, and fed up with her husband's wild and ostentatious extra-marital rutting, Rose took to traveling the world for months at a time, until looming war made grand tours inconvenient. Her punctiliousness--she scheduled the subjects of her family's table talk, and furnished each child with background reading to study before dinner--could veer into something darker. She was quick to reach for the coat hanger when she spied any infraction of her elaborate rules, and after the thrashing she would lock the smarting kid in a darkened closet for good measure. Ted's schooling was at the mercy of her extravagant whims. One time, when he reached third grade, she enrolled him in a new school, unaware that its classes were only for seventh graders and up--and she left him there, to "sink or swim."
(This is as good a point as any to address the touchy subject of aquatic metaphors, with which Kennedy's memoir overflows. A man whose public career was nearly ruined by his role in the drowning of a young woman would have done well to steer clear of them--and to tell his ghostwriter to watch out too. Yet here they are, all over the place, starting with the epigraph from a play by Eugene O'Neill. It reads in part: "I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself--actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea " The apparat used to be more careful than this.)
Teddy's brothers, like all big brothers, were alternately affectionate, protective, and sadistic, though the age difference between them--Jack was 15 years older than Ted--meant that Joe and Jack, and later Bobby, were often absent from home, pursuing the strict regimen of study, travel, work, and whoring that their father had arranged for them as a preparation for the climb to power. Several times Ted mentions his childhood loneliness, shuttled from one boarding school to the next, and there's poignancy to go along with his wistful memories of family good times (scenes that might have been plucked from a PBS documentary: touch football on the lawn, the glistening Sound beyond, the windswept hair, the gleaming teeth ). The best description of Ted's place in the family came from one of Jack's mistresses, who explained it this way to Burton Hersh, an early biographer: "The old man would push Joe, Joe would push Jack, Jack would push Bobby, Bobby would push Teddy, and Teddy would fall on his ass."
His role as family mascot might have doomed him to haplessness. Reaching young adulthood, he became the first Kennedy in three generations to drink in quantity, and he treated it like an ancestral obligation. The family enrolled him in Harvard and he got kicked out for cheating on an exam; he swanned around Europe with B-level starlets and the second cousins of low-ranking royalty; he went to law school at UVA and impressed his classmates most by driving fast cars and nearly destroying the house he had rented from a kindly professor. When his brothers began their rise in politics, he was eager to help but was instead dispatched to distant provinces to charm voters and stay the hell out of trouble. Little Lord Fauntleroy become Fredo Corleone.