Review: John A. Farrell’s revealing bio ‘Ted Kennedy: A Life’

On the shelf

Ted Kennedy: One Life

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

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When Ted Kennedy feared that failing his Spanish test would disqualify him from playing football at Harvard, he sent a friend in his place, hoping to get a higher score. It was the second time Kennedy tried this trick, but this time it failed and he was expelled. His father, an imperious patriarch who dreamed of dynastic power for his extended family, was apoplectic.

“There are people who can mess up their lives and not get caught,” he said to his son. “You’re not one of them.”

It was a truth that helped define the future politician who will be revisited in John A. Farrell’s biography, Ted Kennedy: A Life, out this week.

His three older brothers – Joseph, John and Robert – died in the war or at the hands of assassins. But Teddy lived long enough to fully expose his flaws. Everything is laid bare in this book – the drinking, the infidelity, the selfishness, the casual cruelty, the emotional isolation.

The Kennedy brothers in dark suits and ties.

The Kennedy brothers, from left, Robert, Edward and then-US President John F. Kennedy, in August 1963 in Washington, DC.

(Associated Press)

The central mystery of Kennedy is how these weaknesses coexisted with the benevolence, loyalty, perseverance, and wisdom that have made him one of the most influential senators in modern American history. This is, after all, the same man who, years after abandoning a young woman at the bottom of a pond during a car accident in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, declared, “I define liberalism in this country.”

“His brothers were icons, frozen in youth and time,” writes Farrell. “He now fell to an even heavier duty: to carry and deliver this fallen standard for decades to come.”

No doubt Kennedy stumbled many times. And yet he has also made contributions on civil rights, health care, immigration and more. More than just a personal profile, Farrell’s book delves into the origins of political debates that still divide the country. Kennedy’s fingerprints are on almost all of them.

Farrell’s book is also a character study of how the personal and the political can intersect and contradict each other. While Kennedy has weathered a series of scandals, they have also undermined his effectiveness as an advocate for liberal causes.

One of the clearest examples comes from 1991. Kennedy, restless late at night, forced his son and nephew to take him to a bar. each brought home a young woman. One of them accused the nephew of rape. The trial ended in an acquittal, but not before becoming a media sensation that shone a harsh spotlight on a family who had shed their Camelot glory.

"Ted Kennedy: One Life" by John Farrell

About this time, Clarence Thomas was nominated to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. When Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment, Kennedy was unable to fight the fight against him. He spent his time at the confirmation hearings doodling sailboats, and Thomas was confirmed.

“It really came to a head at those hearings: this discrepancy between a lot of the principles he’d stood up for publicly and the things he’d allegedly done personally,” Hill told Farrell.

Kennedy’s upbringing was simultaneously gilded and twisted. The wealth of his family offered him all educational opportunities; He also faced cruelty and maybe even harassment at boarding school. His mother Rose was often absent and uninterested; his father, Joseph Sr., domineering and demanding. When Kennedy became engaged to his first wife, his mother mistyped her name in a congratulatory letter.

The Kennedy clan in 1938

Joseph P. Kennedy and much of his family in Plymouth, England, in 1938 when he took up the post of US Ambassador to Britain. From left: Kathleen, Joseph, Rose, Patricia, Jean and Robert, with Ted in front.

(Associated Press)

As the youngest of nine siblings, Ted was not seen as a natural leader and he grew accustomed to being deferential and pleasing to others. So while his older brothers John and Robert struggled in the narrow-minded Senate, Teddy thrived in its clubby and hierarchical environment.

“Getting there early and staying late was everything in the US Senate,” writes Farrell. “It was then a swamp of old men with liver spots and claws and bourbon breath, striding through the chamber with a reptilian gait and greeting one another with melodious pleasantries.”

Kennedy was only 30 when he became a senator, and he remained so until his death from cancer at the age of 77. He was relentless to the end, driven by his passion for liberal causes, but never hesitated to strike deals with conservative peers.

Farrell, a former reporter and editor at the Boston Globe, previously wrote biographies of Richard Nixon, Clarence Darrow and Tip O’Neill. He admits in an afterword that writing a new book on Kennedy was daunting, if not foolhardy. Thousands of books have been written about his family, and Kennedy is already the subject of a two-part biography by Neal Gabler.

Even several years after Kennedy’s death, many of his papers remain classified, and Farrell writes that he “weighed the surrender.” For the sake of readers, he did not give up, and his book is a monument to patience. Farrell searched historical archives from North Carolina to Kansas to California and many places in between. The result of his research is almost 600 pages – not counting an extensive index and collection of source notes – which are brimming with detail.

Author John Farrell in a quilted jacket outdoors

John Farrell, author of “Ted Kennedy: A Life”

(Nemus Photography)

Farrell manages to unearth new tidbits about one of the most scrutinized lives in American politics. A close reading of the papers of a family confidante reveals that after Mary Jo Kopechne’s death in Chappaquiddick, one of Kennedy’s sisters believed he was trying to “find a way to cover it all up.” (The confidante Arthur Schlesinger Jr. omitted this from his own memoir, perhaps a reflection of his loyalty to the Kennedy family.)

The author also dug up some of Kennedy’s journal entries, including his description of meeting Samuel Alito when he was a Supreme Court nominee. When asked about Roe vs. Wade, Kennedy wrote in his journal, Alito said, “I think it’s settled” and “I believe in precedent.” Seventeen years later, Alito authored the court decision that overturned the nation’s abortion rights.

At this point, Kennedy was considered the “Lion of the Senate.” In earlier years he had paid a price for his longevity by struggling to adjust to the resurgence of conservatism and more aggressive scrutiny of his personal conduct. But now endurance had its advantages. In the last phase of his life, he helped put together the healthcare legislation that Barack Obama would enact after Kennedy’s death, capping one of the great crusades of his career.

Kennedy expected everyone to help get the law across the finish line, even a former aide who protested that he was too old.

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

Megerian is a White House reporter for the Associated Press and a former Times contributor.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-10-24/ted-kennedy-a-life-biography-book-review Review: John A. Farrell’s revealing bio ‘Ted Kennedy: A Life’

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