When most of us hear the word “Kennedy” we immediately think of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968). Although he was in office only for one thousand days, John F. Kennedy set into motion numerous plans, many of which became reality during the administration of his successor Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973). Kennedy was a gifted orator and skilled politician but struggled to move legislation through Congress. Johnson lacked the flair and polish of the Kennedys, but he was a master politician and he excelled in the one area that is crucial to presidential success: the Senate. The Kennedys knew that to move the Senate, the old guard would have to be removed one by one. And do that meant putting younger senators in office with moderate and liberal views. As part of this plan, the youngest of the Kennedy clan, Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009) followed his brothers into politics and made the Senate his home. And though he never became president or even vice-president, Edward M. Kennedy or “Teddy” helped changed the course of American history during the forty-seven years he served in the U.S. Senate. In this first volume of a two-part biography, author Neal Gabler explores Edward Kennedy’s life from his birth in 1932 until the year 1975.
I do warn readers that the book is a behemoth and not light reading. However, the author’s writing style keeps the narrative flowing smoothly and it never feels like a standard delivery of biographical facts. Instead, Gabler makes the book feel like a journey and in many aspects, it is, but the journey of Edward Kennedy from an aspiring athlete to a U.S. Senator who would have a profound impact on crucial legislation. And while there is a wealth of interesting information about Kennedy himself, the author takes us back in time to an era when America was undergoing significant social change. The early part of the book rightly focuses on the Kennedy household and the dynamics as play between parents Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1968), Rose F. Kennedy (1890-1995) and their nine children. Readers who are looking for a book that provides a good analysis of the Kennedy family will find this to be what they are searching for. True, it is Teddy’s story but without telling the Kennedy story, there is no way to fully recall his life. Behind the cameras, speeches and glamour, the Kennedys had their issues like thousands of other families. And that part of the story is why the book is so good. Through Gabler’s words, they become more relatable as they go through trials, tribulations, and tragic deaths of siblings. Behind the money, there was an enormous amount of grief, insecurities, and family secrets. Teddy comes of age and his life would a mix of many things known all too well to the Kennedy family.
Kennedy was the youngest of the family but in time he became one of the most important. His early life is interesting and Gabler left no stone unturned. Some of the information is widely known but there are some tidbits of information that even season readers will appreciate. Inevitably politics comes in play and as Jack once said about his own entry in politics: “It was like being drafted,” Jack said. “My father wanted his eldest son in politics. ‘Wanted’ isn’t the right word. He demanded it.” Teddy’s battle ground would be back home in Boston against the McCormack family. This early battle in Kennedy’s political career is crucial for many reasons but served as his starting point to a career in the U.S. Government. And to give readers an idea of just how important and bitter the feud was, Gabler states:
“There was no love lost between the McCormacks and the Kennedys. If the Kennedys boiled with resentment at the Protestant establishment, the McCormacks boiled with resentment at the lace-curtain Irish Kennedys. In the hurly-burly of Boston Irish politics, the two clans had fought over the Democratic State Committee in 1956, when Jack attempted a takeover to reform the state party and John McCormack counterattacked.”
Of course, we know that Kennedy was eventually elected to the U.S. Senate, and it is here that the book picks up in pace. With Jack in the White House and Bobby in charge of the Justice Department, Washington was under the thumb of what author David Halberstam (1934-2007) called “the best and the brightest”. But while his older brothers were battling the Soviet Union, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and right-wing elements within their own party and the Republican party, Teddy was sharpening his skills as a Senator determined to move America forward. But his plan would not be easy and there were setbacks along the way. But Teddy never gives up and his determination to his causes epitomizes the true meaning of committed. He would have help in the form of legendary figures in Senate history such as the liberal leader Mike Mansfield (1903-2001) (D-MT) and segregationist James Eastland (1904-1986) (D-MS). Some readers may be wondering how a figure like Eastland could have helped Kennedy. That is explained in the book and what transpires highlights the unusual alliances needed at times to get bills passed.
In any Kennedy story, there are always the elephants in the room in the form of Jack and Bobby’s murders. The events in Dallas and Los Angeles nearly shattered Kennedy completely. Compounded with his grief was the state of his wife Joan, who struggled with her own demons which are discussed in the book. Further, Ted Jr.’s health issues are one more piece of the puzzle that became Teddy’s life. Another person might have given up on everything, but Teddy Kennedy did not and could not. Kennedys don’t lose as they have always maintained. Regardless of how strong he was, Teddy was not immune to demons as well and his personal struggles are also discussed. Gabler pulls no punches in revealing the darkest aspects of his life and revisits Teddy’s brushes with death. And things become very dark when Kennedy decides to visit Chappaquiddick.
On July 18,1969, Kennedy was visiting Chappaquiddick to attend a small meeting that included former members of Robert Kennedy’s campaign staff. At some point during the night, he decided to leave and agreed to give a lift to former Kennedy staffer Mary Jo Kopechne (1940-1969). While crossing the Dike Bridge, the vehicle went over the side and plunged into the murky waters below. Kennedy survived but Kopechne did not. Her death and the aftermath would haunt Kennedy for the rest of his days. There are many stories about Chappaquiddick but was Kennedy negligent that night? Was he too intoxicated to drive? And was he romantically involved with Kopechne? Gabler tackles each question and I leave it up to readers to decide what they believe is the definitive version of the Chappaquiddick story. Readers who are interested in Kopechne’s life might enjoy Georgetta Potoksi and William Nelson’s Our Mary Jo, which is a short but delightful book about a remarkable young woman that died too young. Whatever one believes, the tragedy made it certain that Kennedy would never be president. And it had also drawn the eye of the most paranoid man to ever hold of the office of the presidency, Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994). I had no idea how bitter the rivalry was between Nixon and the Kennedy family. Gabler quickly clears that up with this summary of Nixon’s rage:
“It was incontestable that a disproportionate amount of Nixon’s underhandedness and abuse of power had been directed at Ted Kennedy, and it was even arguable that Nixon’s so-called dirty tricks were hatched by his attempts to destroy Ted after Chappaquiddick, leading to Nixon’s later subversions of democracy.”
To say that the two loathed each other would be an understatement. Teddy does not show his disdain as much, but Nixon’s obsession knew no bounds and his willingness to subvert democracy to punish rivals us what contributed to his downfall. The Watergate saga and Teddy’s battles in the Senate to press the White House play out in the book and it is spellbinding. I now understand more why older relatives used to say that Nixon had to go. But before he did, he did his best to punish Ted Kennedy for his own insecurities and shortcomings, one of which was undoubtedly his loss to Jack Kennedy in the 1960 election. Quite frankly, Nixon was a very dark person, and it becomes clear who Ted Kennedy was so determined to prevent him from reaching the White House. Although that effort failed, Nixon did their work for them by engaging in behavior both illegal and unprecedented. His resignation still stands as one of the most shocking moments in American history. His successor Gerald R. Ford (1913-2006) enters the picture and seems to be the breath of fresh air needed after Nixon’s dark reign. But Ford pardons Nixon which sends shockwaves through Washington. Kennedy is among the many senators appalled by the act as Nixon’s crimes were still fresh in the public’s consciousness. The book finishes with Kennedy returning to his home state of Massachusetts to do battle over the issue of integration. Readers sensitive to descriptions of racial discrimination may find this part of the book difficult to go through. Personally, I had no illusions about integration and my father has told me stories of the nightmare it was for him, my uncles and others sent to all-white schools in accordance with federal law. But the venom with which the Irish in Boston react to integration is disturbing and a reminder that America is not that far removed from a time when racial violence and prejudice were unrestrained. That is not to say that it does not exist currently. We all know discrimination is a problem not just in America but in every country on earth. But I do believe that Robert Kennedy had the right mindset when he would quote Aeschylus whose quest to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world” is as important now as it was then. Ted Kennedy embodied those words through his time in the Senate which will continue in the next installment of this exceptional biography. I cannot wait for the second volume. Highly recommended.
As a bonus, I strongly recommend that readers fascinated with the 1960s and America’s political landscape during that time, should take a good look at Richard Goodwin’s (1913-2018) Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties, which is an invaluable look into the biggest political moments during that decade.