Ted Kennedy and Charles Darwin

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 8, 2009 | Go to article overview

Ted Kennedy and Charles Darwin


Byline: John M. Taylor and Priscilla S. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Probably no living politician has been subjected to more searching media scrutiny than the senior senator from Massachusetts, Edward M. Kennedy. In the twilight of his long career Mr. Kennedy is now the subject of Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy (Simon & Schuster, $28, 464 pages), a joint biography by staff reporters of the Boston Globe, under the editorial guidance of Peter S. Canellos.

The result, against all odds, is a readable, relatively objective study of the once most-vilified man in contemporary American politics.

That vilification is hardly without basis. The authors are unsparing with regard to Mr. Kennedy's well-known boozing and womanizing. They quote a 1979 magazine article that wrote of his frat-boy behavior, attributing it to a severe case of arrested development, a kind of narcissistic intemperance, a huge, babyish ego that must be constantly fed. The authors acknowledge that their subject has on occasion wrapped himself in the Kennedy myth to escape the consequences of his misdeeds.

But Mr. Kennedy has also been an effective legislator. The cause with which he has been most closely associated is that of health reform, today one of President Obama's top priorities. The authors believe that Mr. Kennedy's experience with a son's cancer, spending hours in hospitals and talking with other parents, gave him a deeper understanding of the medical problems of less-affluent Americans.

For all his retinue of advisers and poll-takers, Mr. Kennedy's political judgment has at times been flawed. His 1976 challenge to President Jimmy Carter - a sitting president of Kennedy's own party - resulted in disaster, first for Mr. Kennedy and then for Mr. Carter. The authors note that Mr. Kennedy is not quick in verbal exchange; they recall the 1976 interview with TV anchor Roger Mudd in which Mr. Kennedy was famously incoherent in articulating his hopes for the presidency.

Where Mr. Kennedy has excelled has been in set-piece presentations before friendly audiences, such as his speech before the 2008 Democratic convention. In a voice that was ... still capable of rhetorical thunder, the authors write, the ailing Kennedy spoke with eloquence on

the groundbreaking nature of Obama's candidacy, touting him as a force for unity

The authors contend that Mr. Kennedy has had an immense influence on legislation, stating that he has sponsored roughly 2,500 major bills in his 46 years in the Senate, of which at least 300 became law. The Globe writers compare Mr. Kennedy with Daniel Webster, the 19th-century New Englander who also spent four decades on the national political stage but never became president.

The comparison has some validity, but Webster jeopardized his political future in 1850 by supporting Henry Clay's compromise legislation designed to avert civil war. Ted Kennedy, in contrast, has rarely if ever swum against the liberal Democratic tide.

The authors cite a Time magazine poll in 1978 in which 79 percent of those polled said that Chappaquiddick should not be a factor in judging Mr. Kennedy as a presidential candidate. Ultimately, Mr. Kennedy's long political career, like that of Bill Clinton, suggests that American voters care no more about the private lives of their political leaders than about those of their plumbers and electricians. …

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