Kennedy without tears

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / October 16, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

The day Senator Edward Kennedy died, I sought out Nigel Hamilton for advice. Hamilton knows the Kennedys, and he knows biography. He wrote the best biographical tome about a Kennedy family member, “JFK: Reckless Youth,’’ about Jack Kennedy before he was elected to Congress. More recently he penned “Biography: A Brief History,’’ a study of the biographer’s art.

“It’s difficult to write candidly about someone who’s just died,’’ Hamilton e-mailed me back. “The Romans trained schoolkids to compose encomia on the death of an important member of the family or state - then let Suetonius loose, once they were long dead!’’ Suetonius, author of “Lives of the Twelve Caesars,’’ gained fame for describing the emperor-gods as human beings, with their strengths and weaknesses in clear relief.

Inevitably, latter-day Suetoniuses will be crawling out of the woodwork to write about Teddy Kennedy. A modest first entry in these sweepstakes comes from Leslie Leland, the foreman of the Chappaquiddick grand jury, who is publishing his account of the coverup of Martha’s Vineyard’s most famous traffic incident. Leland’s book, “Left to Die,’’ is slight when compared with Leo Damore’s definitive “Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-up,’’ the most sustained investigation of the tawdry affair to date.

In reappraising the man Garry Wills called “one minute Peck’s Bad Boy, the next an elder statesman,’’ what will stand, and what will crumble? I am looking forward to a detailed explanation of the path that took Kennedy from the nadir of Michael Kelly’s 1990 profile in GQ magazine (“A Senator Bedfellow figure, an aging Irish boyo clutching a bottle’’), to the lengthy, restorative portrait by Elsa Walsh in the 1997 New Yorker, of a man starting each morning on the treadmill before quaffing a healthy breakfast (“He looked nattier and trimmer than usual’’).

The politics are there for all to see. Outside of Route 128 and the Beltway, Kennedy was far from universally popular and viewed as a divisive, sometimes comical figure. He won some and he lost some. In retrospect, it’s hard to fathom what we gained from one of his most storied campaigns, the successful 1987 “borking’’ - now a synonym for demonization - of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.

Kennedy made the evening news and wowed his liberal base, but it’s unclear what the country got in return. Clarence Thomas? Thanks a lot. The Bork crucifixion begat the modern Supreme Court nomination process, where we learn absolutely nothing about the bloodless nominees who can navigate the shoals of the modern Senate confirmation. “The game of judge-bashing ultimately profits no one,’’ Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote at the time.

It’s early yet to judge the legislative accomplishment of the “lion of the Senate.’’ Liberals go blue in the face condemning one of Kennedy’s signal achievements, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, in part because it espoused standardized testing to measure schools’ accomplishments. Kennedy was the Casey Jones in the locomotive of the bureaucratic industrial complex, championing an alphabet soup of legislation - COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act ), HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) - that expanded our country’s only permanent growth industry, government.

We now know how compromised many of the health care measures were; COBRA coverage lasts for a maximum of three years; real health care “portability’’ remains a chimerical goal. To be fair, look how hard it is to pass genuine reforms during an administration that controls both the executive and legislative branches of government.

One game the Kennedys like to play is counterfactual, or “what if?’’ history. It is often averred, on the basis of little evidence, that if John F. Kennedy had lived, he never would have plunged the United States into the quagmire of Vietnam. Throughout much of this year, the blathersphere opined that if Senator Kennedy had been healthy, his sure hand on the legislative tiller would have guaranteed a decent health care bill out of the 111th Congress. Wishful thinking, I’d say.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is