Review: Ted Kennedy, in a new biography, is better — and worse — than you thought.
I was surprised, after reading Teddy’s death in 1961 for the first time, to be reminded of what a complicated man he was. He was, in an era of political and media celebrity worship, both a victim and a survivor. He was a man who, like his brother, was given to grand political gestures. Unlike Bobby, Teddy, who had been a powerful presence in Congress, never became one. He was very much one of the boys who played baseball, but he was also one of the men who wanted to change the rules about what America ought to be. Ted was a man who, as his obituary tells it, “believed in the value of a decent life for everyone,” who gave away more than one million dollars in aid to the needy. He was a man who, as his wife, Ethel, tells it, was “a man of strong moral convictions, but he was not a saint. He struggled with his conscience, he knew that his duty was to the country, both as a senator and as a citizen.”
Yet at the time of his death, Teddy was not a widely known man, and it looked as though he had no future. He had not even won reelection. The most famous politician in America had not been elected for the entire time that he had been alive. I was, of course, reminded of how much more complicated he was than I realized, the fullness of his life never fully appreciated until now.
That was part of the reason I found Ted Kennedy so fascinating. I could not imagine what could go wrong in his story. It was, I assumed, going to be about winning another term in the Senate; a kind of comeback, with a different face. Then last summer I saw, in the pages of the New York Times, a story with a cover that, for me, was like a personal invitation to a party in my living room: “Ted Kennedy’s Death: A Story That Has Taken on a New Luster,” with a picture and a caption that, I could barely believe, read, “We all knew Ted Kennedy.”
What else could it be? Here was a man who had been a senator for 26 years, the world’s best known senator. There would be no surprise. People would