Being Ted Kennedy

Biography Charts Lion of the Senate

Posted March 2, 2009 at 3:09pm

The name Ted Kennedy conjures up many different images to different people. Some think instantly of a car crash on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts that killed a young Mary Jo Kopechne, while others think of a white-haired man hunched over a podium on the Senate floor screaming about health care. Both these views and many others are explored in the new book “Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy.—

The book, put together by seven reporters at the Boston Globe and edited into a seamless narrative by Washington bureau chief Peter Canellos, is an in-depth look at the life of the Massachusetts Democrat. Broken into three sections — Part One: The Rise, Part Two: The Trials and Tribulations, and Part Three: The Redemption — the book explores both the legend and the man.

The book is well-timed as Kennedy battles brain cancer and becomes less of a presence in the Senate. Seizing the moment, the Globe also released a coffee table book of photographs taken by the newspaper over the years. Featuring a foreword by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), “Ted Kennedy: Scenes from an Epic Life— acts as a nice companion to “Last Lion.—

While in many ways “Last Lion— praises Kennedy for his devotion to the Senate and his role as a surrogate father to the children of Bobby Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, it does not shy away from controversy. The Chappaquiddick incident, womanizing and excessive partying are all covered in the 464-page tome, but the Globe digs deeper than the basic tabloid-style tell-all. Anecdotes from Kennedy’s family and friends are used.

For example, the Senator’s first wife, Joan, is quoted throughout the book and speaks at length about her relationship with Kennedy, how his philandering sometimes led her to drink and how she managed life as a member of the Kennedy family. The book reveals for the first time that Joan Kennedy granted her husband an annulment so that he would be able to receive communion at his mother’s funeral.

While the salacious details of Ted Kennedy’s misadventures can be captivating, the Globe also takes the time to delve into the Senator’s legislative accomplishments and the pressure that he felt to run for president. It goes so far as to say that Bobby and Jack Kennedy were not supportive of his first Senate run and that the family often looked down on him as incompetent.

“This is a person about whom perceptions were very fixed; there were people who loved him for his liberalism … there were people who hated him for his liberalism or for his poor personal conduct in the ’80s,— Canellos said. “But none of those people had looked at the whole arc of his life.—

To examine the entirety of his life, the Boston Globe reporters spoke with other reporters who have covered Kennedy over the span of his life. Research for the book also included the use of unpublished letters sent within the Kennedy clan. The letters reveal the close relationship that Kennedy had with his parents. While his father, Joe Kennedy Sr., often traveled, he routinely wrote to his children urging them to study hard. One such letter reads, “You didn’t pass English or Geography and you only got 60 in Spelling and History. That is terrible … You wouldn’t want to have people say that Joe and Jack Kennedy’s brother was such a bad student, so get on your toes.—

Canellos said it was the details of the Kennedy family’s life that surprised him most. He didn’t realize how often Rose Kennedy was involved in her children’s lives, or the role Joe Kennedy Sr. played.

“Joe Kennedy Sr. was the emotional core of the family,— Canellos said. “We think of him as this hard-driving person, but he was actually this warm, loving family man.—

Another thing that Canellos said surprised many is Kennedy’s body of legislative work, something that is often overlooked.

For instance, Kennedy is responsible for the Ryan White Care Act, which first passed in 1988 and created programs to help care for those stricken with AIDS. The bill, which must be renewed every few years, almost didn’t pass in 1995, when conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) tried to attach amendments that would ultimately kill the bill. During the fight, Kennedy relied on his close personal friend Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to address his party and guide the bill to final passage.

This peculiar friendship between the ultra-conservative Hatch and Kennedy, the “liberal lion,— is examined at length. Hatch first ran for his Senate seat in 1976 on an anti-Kennedy platform, saying his goal in going to Washington, D.C., was “to fight Ted Kennedy.— Shortly after arriving in Congress, Hatch realized he needed Kennedy, one of the more powerful Members in the body, on his side if he wanted to succeed.

Both men sat on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which Hatch chaired. Eventually, Hatch asked for Kennedy’s help, saying, “I can’t run this committee without you. I know it. You know it. I’m going to need your help.—

Despite their political differences, the two forged a close friendship that has included long dinners and attendance at funerals for each other’s family members.

In the end, “Last Lion— is a complete portrait of Kennedy. It touches on all aspects of his life with an objective lens. Many of his faults are on display, but so are many of his accomplishments.