Sunday, 25 October 2009

New books: The Kennedys, by one of them

Edward M. Kennedy was alone among the Kennedy brothers in reaching old age. That also meant that he was the only of them able to write his memoirs. But only just – True Compass: A Memoir arrived at his home from the printers on in the morning of the day of his death and was published in the USA on 14 September. It is an insightful account from the inside of American politics and of the Kennedy clan.
Although “Ted” Kennedy, a Senator for 46 years, made a good career in politics he will of course be remembered not only for that, but also for his role in the legend that was the Kennedy clan. Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s four sons and five daughters fascinated and appealed to the people of the USA and abroad in a way that no other American family has done.
Senator Kennedy begins his autobiography with the illness that afflicted him in 2008 and which lead to his death this August, writing that “the dire implications” of it made him realise that “my own life has always been inseparable from that of my family” and that the term “family” “virtually defined my entire consciousness”, concluding: “My story is their story, and theirs is mine. And so it shall be in these pages”. Thus the book deals not only with his own life and career, but also with those of his parents, brothers and sisters. That alone makes it stand out among the floods of Kennedy books – this is one of the few where a central member of the family tells the story himself.
His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, is portrayed as the patriarch of the family who was a strong presence in the lives of his children until a stroke deprived him of the ability to speak in the early 1960s. Strict, but fair, well-meaning and genuinely concerned about his children seems to be the essence of his son’s view, which mostly leaves out the darker sides of Joseph P. Kennedy’s activities.
Ted Kennedy denies the oft-repeated myth that his father had “designated” all his sons for high office, with the eldest brother, Joseph Jr, to be President of the USA. “My eldest brother’s political ambitions were entirely his own”, the youngest brother writes. Those ambitions came to nothing when Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr was killed on active service during WWII. A few years after the war ended, the eldest sister, Kathleen, Marchioness of Hartington, was also killed in a flying accident. Thus “Teddy” had lost two of his siblings to violent deaths when he was only 16. But, as we know, worse was to come.
The second oldest brother, John F. Kennedy, obviously meant much to “Teddy”, who describes him as “my mentor, protector, wise counsel, and constant friend” – in fact he was also his godfather. There are many fond memories of the elder brother recalled in the pages of this book. Edward Kennedy’s first campaigning was done on the behalf of his brother and the three surviving brothers all had the chance to work together politically when “Teddy” became a Senator in 1962, while John was President and Robert Attorney-General.
After the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963 the youngest brother “was so worried about Bobby that I tried to suppress my own grief”. He pushed away his grief inside him. He was himself nearly killed in a plane accident the following year and then, in 1968, came Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, which “Teddy” was actively involved with until it was so brutally brought to an end by another assassin’s bullet. He was almost knocked to the ground by this fourth tragedy and he rejected all suggestions that he should run for president himself. In the following years he also turned down repeated offers of the vice-presidential slot on several election tickets.
His brothers “established a soaring standard for public service”, the author writes, a standard which “to a great extent has defined my life and my aims. I have always measured myself against that standard. Jack and Bobby were my heroes”. The sole survivor of the brothers continued their work in the Senate, where he sat until his death. The great causes of his political career – civil rights and health care in particular – are extensively dealt with in the book, as is natural in a politician’s memoirs.
But there are also a succession of “lesser” issues, Supreme Court nominations and other political events which he mostly manages to relate in a way which does not become boring. But it should be pointed out that there are some mistakes and inaccuracies which are really quite unnecessary in such a book (there was for example no presidential election in 1994, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981 rather than 1980 and Vladimir Putin was certainly not “Soviet President”).
Edward M. Kennedy lived almost his entire life in the public spotlight – thus the world came to share not only his joys and triumphs, but also his tragedies and his failures. When he was caught cheating at a Harvard exam, his father told him: “There are people who can mess up in life and not get caught, but you’re not one of them, Teddy”. He did mess up a few times during his life and could therefore not avoid addressing these episodes in his memoirs.
The gravest was of course the Chappaquiddick tragedy in 1969, when the Senator accidently drove his car into a lake and did not alert the police until the next day, by which time a young woman passenger who was unable to escape from the car had suffered a painful death by drowning. He once again denies rumours that he had an extramarital relationship with this young woman and acknowledges, as he has done many times before, that his “actions were inexcusable”. However, what seems to have been the worst part of it all for him was the thought that he might have “shortened my father’s life from the shock I had visited on him [...]. The pain of that burden was almost unbearable”.
This was certainly the nadir of Edward Kennedy’s life and career, but, although the accident would haunt him for the rest of his life, he managed to rise again and restore himself to a place of national importance. In fact, he probably achieved more during his nearly five decades in the Senate than his brothers ever had the chance to do in the short time they held their more powerful positions.
He came to work with many presidents, but concludes that in “my nearly fifty years of public life, we have not had a president as successful as FDR. The closest we’ve come (family relations excluded) is Lyndon Johnson. Civil rights was the issue of our time. He picked up that unfinished work and ensured the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. If he hadn’t, we certainly wouldn’t be where we are today”.
Kennedy seems to have respected the elder George Bush, while his enthusiasm for John Kerry speaks volumes of his views of George W. Bush. Ronald Reagan is portrayed as a light-weight president who mostly preferred talking about anything but the issue at hand, while Kennedy asserts that he has “remained a close friend of Nancy Reagan”. Among the presidents, the harshest judgements are reserved for Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
In 1984 Kennedy took the dramatic decision to challenge the incumbent president for the party’s nomination, stating that he “felt almost forced into the decision by what I saw as Carter’s dragging down of the country and the party”. Kennedy lost the nomination to Carter, who then lost the presidency to Reagan, something Carter has often blamed Kennedy for. In Kennedy’s eyes Carter did not need much “help” losing the election.
The 1990s were on the whole a good decade for Edward Kennedy. Following the divorce from his first wife in 1981, he married his “soul-mate” Victoria Reggie in 1992 and became a happier man. Yet the 1990s also held their share of grief – the death of “dear Jackie [...], heartbreakingly young at sixty-four”, the passing of his 104-year-old mother, which made him feel as if “the legs had been knocked out from under me”, and the tragic plane accident which claimed the lives of John F. Kennedy, Jr, his wife and her sister. “A lot of people have wondered whether John ultimately would have sought public office”, his uncle writes. “I think he might have, and that he would have excelled”.
One of Edward M. Kennedy’s last public appearances was at the Democrat party convention in August 2008, when the mortally ill Senator declared in his speech that “this November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans”. He came to believe that Barack Obama “was the candidate we needed now at this time in our history” and that “history had handed us that rarest of figures, one who could truly carve out new frontiers”. But then illness cut Kennedy down. He lived to see Obama installed as President of the USA, but he did not live to see what the results may be.

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