Review: John A. Farrell’s Candid Biography “Ted Kennedy: A Life”

On the shelf

Ted Kennedy life

John A. Farrell
Penguin Press: 752 pages, $40.

If you buy books linked from our site, The Times may earn a commission from Bookshop.orgwhose fees support independent bookstores.

When Ted Kennedy fearing that failing his Spanish test would make him ineligible to play football at Harvard, he sent a friend in his place in the hope of getting a higher score. This was the second time Kennedy tried this ploy, but this time it failed and he was expelled. His father, an imperious patriarch who dreamed of dynastic power for his overgrown family, was shattered by apoplexy.

“There are people who can mess up in life and not get caught,” he told his son. “You are not one of them.

It was the truth that helped define the politician’s future, which was recently highlighted in John A. Farrell’s biography Ted Kennedy: A Life, released this week.

His three older brothers, Joseph, John and Robert, are dead. in the war or by hand the killers. But Teddy lived long enough for his flaws to be fully exposed. Everything is exposed in this book – drunkenness, infidelity, selfishness, random cruelty, emotional isolation.

The Kennedy brothers in dark suits and ties.

The Kennedy brothers (left to right), Robert, Edward, and then US President John F. Kennedy in Washington, DC, in August 1963.

(Associated Press)

Kennedy’s central puzzle is how these shortcomings exist along with the benevolence, loyalty, perseverance and wisdom that made him one of the most powerful senators in modern American history. After all, this is the same man who declared, “I define liberalism in this country,” years after he dumped a young woman at the bottom of a pond in a car accident in New York. Chappaviddickweight.

“His brothers were icons frozen in youth and time,” Farrell writes. “Now a more difficult duty fell on him: to carry this fallen banner for decades and deliver it.”

No doubt Kennedy often stumbled. Yet he has spoken time and time again on civil rights, health care, immigration, and more. Farrell’s book is more than just a personal profile, it revisits the origins of the political debate that still divides the country. Kennedy’s fingerprints are on almost everyone.

Farrell’s book is also a character exploration of how the personal and the political can intersect and conflict. Kennedy may have endured a series of scandals, but they also undermined his effectiveness as a defender of liberal causes.

One of the most striking examples occurred in 1991. Restless late at night, Kennedy dragged his son and nephew to join him for drinks at the bar; each brought home a young woman. One of them accused the nephew rape. The trial ended in an acquittal, but not before it became a media sensation that cast a harsh light on a family that had lost its Camelot glow.

"Ted Kennedy life" John Farrell

Around this time, Clarence Thomas was appointed to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. When Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment, Kennedy was unable to help lead the fight against him. He spent time at the confirmation hearing drawing sailboats and Thomas was confirmed.

“It really came to a head in those hearings: it’s a discrepancy between a lot of the principles he stood up for publicly and the things he supposedly did in person,” Hill told Farrell.

Kennedy’s upbringing was both gilded and twisted. The wealth of his family provided him with every opportunity for education; he also faced abuse and possibly even harassment at the boarding school. His mother, Rose, was often absent and uninterested; his father Mr Joseph, domineering and demanding. When Kennedy became engaged to his first wife, his mother misrepresented her name in a congratulatory note.

The Kennedy clan in 1938.

Joseph P. Kennedy and most of his family in Plymouth, England, in 1938 when he took over as US Ambassador to Britain. From left to right: Kathleen, Joseph, Rose, Patricia, Jean and Robert, Ted in front.

(Associated Press)

As the youngest of nine siblings, Ted was not considered a natural leader and was used to being respectful and pleasing to others. So while his older brothers John and Robert struggled in the hardened Senate, Teddy thrived in his clubbing and hierarchical environment.

“It used to be that coming and staying late was everyone and everything in the US Senate,” Farrell writes. “Then it was a cesspool of old men with liver spots, claws and bourbon breath, who walked the hall with a reptilian gait and greeted each other with honeyed courtesies.”

Kennedy was only 30 when he became a senator, and he remained so until his death from cancer at age 77. He was relentless to the end, fueled by a passion for liberal ideas but never hesitant to make deals with conservative colleagues.

Farrell, former reporter and editor for the Boston Globe, has previously written biographies Richard Nixon, Clarence Darrow and Tip O’Neill. In an afterword, he admits that it was difficult, if not reckless, to try to write a new book about Kennedy. Thousands of books have been written about his family, and Kennedy has already become the subject of a two-part biography. Neil Gabler.

Even a few years after Kennedy’s death, many of his papers remain classified, and Farrell writes that he “weighed the surrender”. Fortunately for readers, he did not give up, and his book is a monument to patience. Farrell studied historical archives from North Carolina to Kansas, California and many points in between. The result of his research is almost 600 pages, not counting an extensive index and a collection of source notes abounding in detail.

Author John Farrell in a padded jacket in nature

John Farrell, author of Ted Kennedy: A Life.

(Photo by Nemus)

Farrell manages to unearth new tidbits about one of the most scrutinized lives in American politics. A careful reading of the family’s trusted documents reveals that after the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in Chappaquiddick, one of the Kennedy sisters believed that he wanted to “find some way to hide it all.” (Confidant, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., omitted it from his memoirs, perhaps because of his devotion to the Kennedy family.)

The author also discovered some of Kennedy’s diary entries, including his description of meeting Samuel Alito while he was a candidate for the Supreme Court. When asked about Roe vs. Wade, Kennedy wrote in his diary, Alito said “I think everything is settled” and “I believe in precedents”. Seventeen years later, Alito would be the author of a court decision repealing the nationwide right to abortion.

By this point, Kennedy was considered the “Lion of the Senate”. In earlier years, he paid the price of his longevity by struggling to adjust to a resurgence of conservatism and more aggressive scrutiny of his personal behavior. But now endurance had its advantages. In the final phase of his life, he helped gather health care legislation that Barack Obama would sign the law after Kennedy’s death, ending one of the greatest crusades of his career.

Kennedy expected everyone to take part in pushing the law to the finish line, even the former councilor who protested that he was too old.

“I have brain cancer,” Kennedy said. “I’m still struggling.”

Megerian is a White House reporter for the Associated Press and a former staff columnist for The Times.