Michael Tomasky is a political columnist at New York magazine. He has contributed to the New York Times Book Review, Harper's, GQ, the Nation, Dissent, and others. He is the author of Left for Dead and is currently at work on a book about the Hillary Clinton-Rudolph Giuliani Senate race.
Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography, by Adam Clymer. William Morrow and Company, 1999.
When John F. Kennedy, Jr., died so tragically last year, it was by all accounts his uncle Ted who delivered the private ceremony's most moving eulogy, quoting Yeats to the effect that "we dared to think" that young John would live "to comb gray hair." Ted had, indeed, spoken those same words at John's father's funeral, thirty-six years previous. It's impossible to imagine the horror he must have felt in revisiting those lines on such an occasion; impossible to imagine, as many have observed over the years, how the family has managed to confront the tragedies it has faced, all of them relayed around the globe via the camera crews on board the helicopters hovering mercilessly above the beaches of Hyannis Port; most impossible of all, in some ways, to imagine being the one who witnessed them all, and, not to be coarse about it, caused one or two yourself. I don't believe Yeats, in the poem in question, intended to imply that living to comb gray hair was in and of itself a gift.
The question at hand, or one question, is whether the Kennedy who did receive the gift of years made full use of them. Adam Clymer's answer, with a few of the obvious disclaimers, is an emphatic yes, and one is inclined on the evidence Clymer presents to second the motion. It is not Clymer's intention in this door-stopping biography to defend the man's, well, character; in fact the author argues, implicitly if not always explicitly, that what the pundits now call character was in no small part invented around the person of Ted Kennedy in all his flaws and failings, and in this argument, too, he is persuasive. But Clymer's main goal is to show us how effective a maker of laws and a shaper of the national debate Kennedy has been over the years. He concludes that Kennedy "deserves recognition not just as the leading Senator of his time, but as one of the greats in history, wise in the workings of this singular institution, especially its demand to be more than partisan to accomplish much." This assessment, particularly that last part, will win more than a few groans from the conservative commentariat for whom Kennedy is nothing more than the poster child for ultraliberal profligacy, both political and personal; whose idea about Kennedy, in other words, can be reduced to the crude sentiment of the old bumper sticker, which held that "more people died in Teddy Kennedy's car than at Three Mile Island."
But Clymer builds the case. Civil-rights legislation. Minimum-wage bills. Healthcare advances. Meals on Wheels, a Kennedy invention. The vote for eighteen-year-olds. Elimination of the poll tax. Diplomatic pressure on apartheid South Africa. Expansion of democracy in Latin America, Chile most especially. And, lest one conclude that the accomplishments are entirely in service of the Left, airline deregulation, which he spearheaded, and the ending of parole in the federal prison system. All these facts of American political life, and many others, bear Kennedy's stamp, in ways large and small, and most passed with a serving of bipartisan cooperation that would surprise the reader who hasn't followed Kennedy's career closely. It's well enough known, for example, that Kennedy has developed a close relationship over the years with Orrin Hatch. Clymer fills in the details, the most striking of which, to me, involves a $1 billion AIDS research bill passed in 1988 on which Kennedy and Hatch teamed up against Jesse Helms.
Hatch, persuaded by Kennedy, gave a speech (open-minded, for a conservative Mormon Republican in 1988) on the Senate floor; a Helms counteramendment was rushed, and the AIDS bill finally passed by a margin of eighty-seven to four. …