By the time of his death in 2009, "Ted" the last of the Kennedy brothers had served in the Senate for 47 years and was widely regarded as a senatorial star, someone much more committed to the Senate and more effective as a senator than either of his two older brothers had been and whose name was associated with major landmark legislation, including the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (“perhaps the single most nation-changing measure of the era),” and finally as the leading advocate for universal health care. None of that was inevitable. None of that would have been predicted when, at the age of 30, he was first elected to the Senate in 1962, a position for which he was widely seen as completely unqualified. Then, he was just President Kennedy's baby brother and yet one more example of the unbridled ambition of an arrogant, ambitious, overly rich, and overly privileged Kennedy dynasty.
How a career that began so inauspiciously in 1962 became something so unexpectedly admirable is the story which Neal Gabler tells in this first volume - Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour, 1932-1975 - of what promises to be a very ambitious and comprehensive biography.
For anyone of my generation, the basic outline of the Ted Kennedy story is familiar, as is so much of the triumph-and-tragedy associated with that problematic late 20th-century substitute for an authentic American royal family. Gabler retells the familiar story through the lens of Edward Kennedy's marginal status within the family itself - the youngest child, from whom little was expected in comparison with his star-quality brothers, but who unlike them developed precisely those personal empathetic qualities which enabled him to connect naturally and effectively with people and in the end made him a better and more effective politician than his higher stature brothers.
Gabler highlights the contrast throughout. He stresses the family's obsession that the "children be the very models of social, cultural, and physical perfection, that they stand straight, dress well, be clean, well spoken, well mannered, presentable—in short, the personification of the wealthy aristocrats the Kennedys so detested and so envied." As a child, Teddy was chubby, but "Kennedys were not supposed to be fat." When he famously got caught cheating and was expelled from Harvard, he was horrified that he had gotten caught, "which fit the amorality in which he had been raised." Famously, Joe Kennedy had big plans for his sons. But, Gabler stresses, "there was no morality in those plans, no civic mission or public good." This was the legacy Senator Kennedy would struggle to transcend. Indeed, Gabler calls "Teddy, the most empathetic of the Kennedys, in part because he was the most disrespected of the Kennedys."
Gabler highlights how this may have helped Kennedy find a productive place in the 20th-century Senate - almost as dysfunctional then as now but in a very different way. "Ted Kennedy’s advantage was that he had grown up in a family where he was the youngest, the least, the one who was forced to entertain and appease his siblings and parents, which he did—'a ninth-child talent'—and that talent would be instrumental in entertaining and appeasing the elders in his new family, his Senate family. So if Ted Kennedy was made to be a politician, he was also made to be a senator in an institution run by old bulls, an institution in which the sort of deference he had always displayed and the sort of comity he had always exuded could go a very long way. As Milton Gwirtzman put it, 'He knew how a young person should deal with the old people'.”
Gabler takes the reader through the familiar territory of the more positive influence of his maternal grandfather Honey Fitz and Ted's initiation into the family business of politics (and the family hobby of womanizing). But he also examines the changing times against which Kennedy's senate career enfolded. Thus, in contrast to what we see now and what was already happening later in Ted's career, back when John Kennedy was president "the institutions were all functioning and working. You had belief in the presidency and what they were going to do.” And, just as the times changed, so did Ted's sense of purpose. Thus, Gabler describes his speech on the Senate floor during the debate on the 1964 Civil Rights Act: "But he had never delivered remarks like these, never a full address, never an address so obviously crafted for the occasion ... would, and, perhaps above all, never one that seemed to recognize the salience of moral authority in liberal politics as this address did. Ted Kennedy had not been a moral leader; he had been too junior to be one. Now he assumed that role."
Senator Kennedy's "heightened sense of purpose" developed against the background of two dramas. The first, of course, consisted of a series of personal and familial tragedies, which Gabler describes in detail - John Kennedy's assassination, Ted's 1964 plane crash, and Robert Kennedy's assassination. There was also Ted's deteriorating marriage with Joan. "Ted Kennedy had no empathy for his wife, no feeling for her suffering or appreciation for what she was going through or any recognition of what he had done to worsen it." There was also their son's bone cancer and leg amputation, which also added to his appreciation of the calamitous cost of health care for ordinary Americans. And, of course, there was Chappaquiddick.
The second was the transformation of the political landscape from the highpoint of liberalism in the mid-1960s to liberalism's gradual exhaustion in the 1970s, by which time Nixon had "legitimized resentments by removing the moral opprobrium against those resentments," and "The majority of Americans had grown tired of the effort and sacrifice required to be good."
Gabler interprets the end of the liberal era in primarily moral terms, which adds to the poignancy of the early-mid 1970s (the point at which this volume concludes). Especially in the aftermath of Chappquiddick, he notes "To the extent that Ted Kennedy had become the face and the voice of modern liberalism, the liberals’ shadow president and the only figure in the party with the Kennedy inheritance, it was liberalism’s loss as well—a devastating loss—the loss of its moral authority."
And, closely connected with the loss of liberalism's moral authority, would be the loss of a traditional constituency, illustrated so well in the account of the politically and personally bruising Boston battle over school busing. "Perhaps more than any other issue, busing had come to symbolize not only the imposition of liberal elitism on ordinary folks who had never had any great affinity for African Americans to begin with but also the end of liberalism’s moral authority among the working class, who had once been the backbone of American liberalism."
Yet Kennedy would persevere and in time become the proverbial last one standing as a representative of New Deal and Great Society liberalism. Gabler probes why and finds one answer in religion: "in the Catholicism that Rose Kennedy, whose life spun around the poles of materialism and piety, took so seriously and that she enforced upon her children, even as the aesthetics of religion seemed to her as important, if not more important, as the spiritualism. ... But it was precisely because Ted Kennedy seemed so self-indulgent, at least when it came to drink and women, that his religion came to matter so much to him as a counterweight and a guide to redemption."
There was also, of course, the Kennedy obsession with Irish grievance. But there was also something more: "there was an answer for the least of the Kennedys in what he learned from the least fortunate of the Kennedys. If, on his Sunday visits with his grandson, Honey Fitz introduced Ted to the working people of Boston, Ted’s sister Rosemary introduced him to the afflicted and challenged. The Kennedys did not coddle Rosemary. Anything but. They tried to disguise her disability, pass her off as perfectly normal. But even as she tried so hard to conform—indeed, because she tried so hard to conform—she informed the lives of her brothers and sisters. Ted often cited her as one of the most important influences in his life both personally (“Rosemary enriched the humanity of all of us,” he would write in his memoir) and politically, listing her alongside Honey Fitz and his father and his brothers."
Inescapably, Ted was trapped by the pursuit of the presidency. Gabler chronicles how he simultaneously sought but didn't actually run for the presidency in 1972 and 1976, when many thought he would run and many thought he should run. It will be interesting to read how he recounts what happened when Ted finally did run in 1980, the defeat which, I think, finally seemed to liberate him to be what he would be best at in the end.