Book Review: 'Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy' Edited by Peter S. Canellos

Review by Chris Cillizza
Sunday, March 29, 2009


The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy

Edited by Peter S. Canellos

Simon & Schuster. 464 pp. $28

After Edward M. Kennedy nearly lost his life in a 1964 plane crash that killed both the pilot and one of the Massachusetts senator's closest aides, President Lyndon Johnson decided that he wanted to stop by and see his friend. Kennedy, strapped flat to a bed with three fractured vertebrae, demurred via an aide. But, when Johnson persisted -- as only the cajoling Texan could -- Kennedy relented, rallying to spend 20 minutes in the middle of the night swapping stories and jokes, bonding with the leader of the free world.

This episode, recounted in "Last Lion," an insightful biography by a team of Boston Globe reporters and editors, exemplifies Kennedy's ability to recover -- and often prosper -- from misfortune. Over the last half-century, the roly-poly (his sister Jean nicknamed him "Biscuits and Muffins") youngest child of America's "First Family" rebounded from unspeakable tragedies and self-inflicted wounds with a resilience that has become his lasting contribution to the legacy of Camelot.

Born in Boston in 1932, Ted Kennedy spent his formative years in the shadow of his brothers Joe Jr. (who died in combat in 1944), Jack and Bobby. In 1957 -- three years before Jack was elected president and five years before Ted entered the Senate -- the Saturday Evening Post wrote that "fervent admirers" of the Kennedys "confidently look forward to the day when Jack will be in the White House, Bobby will serve in the Cabinet as Attorney General, and Teddy will be the Senator from Massachusetts."

The most fervent of those admirers undoubtedly was Joe Kennedy, a self-made millionaire who dominated the lives of his children as only a hyper-ambitious father can. But of the four boys, Ted seemed least likely to fulfill the family's aspirations. In contrast to Jack's bookishness and Bobby's driven focus, Ted displayed an easy nature and sly sense of humor: at 5, he penned a letter thanking Santa Claus for his presents and adding, "you can give me some more anytime you want to." He was not the early achiever that his older brothers were; he attended Harvard and played on the football team but was kicked out in his freshman year for cheating on a Spanish exam.

Nevertheless, Joe Kennedy saw political talent in his youngest son. In 1961, the authors of "Last Lion" note, the patriarch opined that Ted was the most attractive politically of the brothers, the best looking and the best speaker, though not as smart as the rest. (Joe Kennedy was never one to mince words.) Ted's election at age 30 to Jack's former Senate seat appeared to vindicate their father's vision.

It wasn't just the meteoric rise of the three brothers, however, that brought America to know and, in some circles, to love Ted Kennedy. Rather, it was his soldiering on through tragedy after tragedy. In November 1963, Ted was the one who told his ailing father that Jack had been shot -- "There's been a bad accident. The president has been hurt very badly. In fact, he died," Kennedy sobbed to the old man. In June 1968, Ted flew from Los Angeles to New York with his brother Bobby's casket. And in July 1999, Ted rallied the family following the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. in a plane crash. "The enormity of this series of tragedies . . . would have put most of us out of commission," John Culver, a friend and fellow senator, is quoted as saying in "Last Lion."

Along with great strength in times of crisis, Ted Kennedy also showed glaring weaknesses, the most damaging of which was a tendency to abdicate responsibility. It's a trait on display in his dismissal from Harvard and the unapologetic womanizing that Jackie Kennedy (who knew whereof she spoke) described to his first wife, Joan, as an "addiction." The Kennedy hubris was on display most vividly in the July 1969 car crash on Chappaquiddick Island that left Mary Jo Kopechne dead. Kennedy's explanation -- told without skepticism by the book's authors -- remains to this day muddled and inconclusive, a jumble of rationalizations that almost certainly cost him the presidency in 1972, dissuaded him from running in 1976 and helped derail his primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter in 1980. In ads paid for by the Carter campaign, voters were shown speaking directly to the camera about Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, insisting "I don't trust him" and "I don't believe him."

Yet the end of his presidential aspirations may have come as a relief. "It is my opinion that he didn't want to run," David Burke, Kennedy's first chief of staff, told the Globe authors. And so, freed from the expectations set by his father and lived out by his brothers, Kennedy spent decades carving out his own legacy -- one built not on a relentless drive to the White House but as the last line of defense for liberalism during the terms of President Ronald Reagan and the two Presidents Bush. His list of legislative accomplishments is long, particularly on education and health care, and he remains a go-to dealmaker for Senate Democrats and Republicans alike.

What, then, ultimately to make of Ted Kennedy? Here is a man born to great privilege and even greater expectations who achieved much but, in the end, saw tragedy and personal shortcomings circumscribe his life. His memoir, tentatively titled "True Compass," is scheduled to come out this autumn, and in it we may learn what helped him persevere and whether he feels loss or satisfaction more sharply.

In the meantime, a partial answer may be found in the image of him at sea -- a place he sought in good times (he was a regular participant in sailing regattas off Martha's Vineyard) and bad (after Bobby's death, he sailed for days on end with his friend John Tunney by his side), and a metaphor for the crests and troughs he confronted throughout his tumultuous life. Before Vicki Reggie married him in July 1993, her father, a family friend, warned her that she would always trail the Senate and Kennedy's sailboat, Mya, in his affections. It is fitting then that hours after being released from Massachusetts General Hospital last May with a diagnosis of brain cancer, Ted Kennedy took to the waters off his beloved Hyannisport with Vicki for a sail on Mya. Kennedy sat at the helm with a black knit cap pulled over his tousle of white hair, a beaming smile etched on his face.

Chris Cillizza is a political reporter for the Post. His online column is "The Fix."

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