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« Excellence in Higher Education | Main | Ted Kennedy: 'This is the cause of my life' »

Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy, by Peter Cannellos

By Marty Keenan
August 26, 2009

Most biographies about the Kennedys are either written to make them look better than they are or worse than they are. This team effort by the Boston Globe is right in the middle.

It appears to be an honest effort to summarize the nature of Ted Kennedy: his substantial personal failings, coupled with his efforts to compensate for those failings with overarching legislative accomplishments and small acts of personal generosity.

Until I read this book, Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy, I never believed those who said Ted Kennedy had more impact on American legislative history than Jack or Bobby. But I believe it now.

More than Jack or Bobby, Ted was a natural politician, and a natural Senator. He was a throwback to his maternal grandfather, "Honey Fitz," who loved meeting people and plunging into crowds.

JFK had said that he would rather read a book on an airplane than talk to the guy next to him. JFK didn't like the backslapping, hail-fellow-well-met part of politics. That's not to say that he wasn't good at it, but he didn't like it. RFK was shy and arrogant at times, and didn't really come out of his shell in terms of enjoying meeting people until 1968.

But Ted was the image of "Honey Fitz,"---he loved going into pool halls and Knights of Columbus halls to backslap and meet people. Of the three brothers, he was the best one-on-one politician. But most importantly, these one-on-one skills made him a great Senator, since so much of being a successful Senator is about relationships with other Senators. Jack and Bobby were bored with the legislative branch, yet this book shows why the Senate was home to Ted Kennedy.

There is little doubt that had Ted jumped into the 1968 Presidential race after Robert Kennedy's death, that he would have been the nominee and been President instead of Nixon.

A year later, Chappaquiddick changed everything, and it should have. As the book points out, the fact that he may have been driving drunk and was with a woman other than his wife pale in comparison to the larger question: why did he wait so long to report the accident?

He would never be President, but he tried anyway in 1980. The book largely glosses over his failure to present a united front with Carter after his defeat, which led to the Reagan realignment in 1980. If he had set aside his differences with Carter and campaigned hard for him,would things have been different in 1980? Who knows. Probably not.

The most interesting part of the book is the transformation the book describes when Kennedy met and married Victoria Reggie, the daughter of a powerful Louisiana political family. His second wife seemed to change things in a significant way. Ted's relationship with Victoria led to his basic redemption in public opinion as a "Lion of the Senate," a man that would receive honorary Knighthood from the Queen of England.

The one trait in Kennedy that stands out, in spite of his enormous personal failing at Chappaquiddick and in other instances, is his basic generosity. The book correctly portrays EMK as a guy who made some huge mistakes, but who is capable of great generosity, and whose skill at getting legislation passed is second to none.

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