By the Team of the Boston Globe, edited by Peter S. Canellos, Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y.480 pages, $28
Ted Kennedy has achieved one of history’s greatest comebacks. It would be difficult to find a modern-day figure who through sheer hard work and persistence crafted a more successful Act Two from personal and political ruin. His phoenix-like rise from the ashes is the theme of “Last Lion.”
The book is a good read, especially for Kennedy fans. It does not answer the tough questions on Chappaquidick or Kennedy’s other moral failings. It paints the senator in an extremely favorable light, with which this reader generally agrees. When Ted Kennedy is no longer in the Senate, the Democratic Party will have lost one of its greatest and most effective leaders.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy devastated the then-junior senator from Massachusetts, but it was a near-fatal crash shortly thereafter that changed Ted Kennedy’s perspective on life. Confined for months to a stretcher with a broken back, Kennedy developed a new seriousness and sense of purpose. As was the case with his brother Jack and Franklin D. Roosevelt, severe pain and a brush with his mortality created empathy and provided insight into the lives of those less fortunate.
The assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968 placed Ted Kennedy in the spotlight, and his nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972 seemed a forgone conclusion—until Chappaquidick.
This book is factual and, in fact, kind in its analysis of Ted Kennedy’s actions after the accident that took Mary Jo Kopechne’s young life. Did the failure to report the accident represent a hope by Kennedy that he could “fix” the situation or was it a result of the actions of a depressed, grief stricken, confused man? The authors leave that to the readers to decide. What is clear is that the incident ended Kennedy’s chance at the presidency.
The authors attribute Ronald Reagan’s election to the bitter primary battle between Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter. The Reagan years and Republican control of Congress in the 1980s was referred to by a Kennedy aide as “the darkness.” It was such both politically and personally for Ted Kenndy.
His marriage to Joan, a hastily arranged affair, dissolved. His son Ted Jr. had a leg amputated to cancer. The senator deteriorated into a hard-drinking, inappropriate caricature of himself. His sexual escapades were legendary.
Despite this decline, Kennedy became a prolific legislator. He took to the Senate “like a duck to water” said a George McGovern aide. While his private life was “messy,” he was extremely productive as a senator.
Kennedy’s personal experience with health challenges, his sister Rosemary’s mental retardation, his son’s cancer, his own long convalescence, made his long-term agenda that every American man, woman and child have access to decent health care. His view is that health care is a basic human right, not a privilege.
He was the architect of the Women, Infants and Children Institute Program (WIC) and the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA, which gives workers who lose their jobs the ability to retain their health coverage for limited periods.
He would follow with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, to prevent insurance companies from using pre-existing conditions to deny coverage to patients.
He quadrupled funding for cancer research at the National Institute of Health. He passed the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, which helps mentally disabled people to stay in their homes. HMO’s were started, thanks to legislation Kennedy drafted.
The senator also radically changed the process of Senate approval of the president’s Supreme Court nominees. In 1987, Ronald Reagan proposed right-wing ideologue Robert Bork. Up to that time, the Senate had given deference to Court nominees. Kennedy broke with tradition and opposed Judge Bork from the start. By the time Kennedy was done, the process would never be the same again.
Kennedy’s unpopular position on the bussing issue in South Boston marked a turning point in his relationship with his blue-collar base. It was reflective of the larger changes in the Democratic party. This, taken with his involvement in the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, brought about Ted Kennedy’s political decline.
In 1991, Kennedy’s national approval rating was 22 percent. Voters regarded him with personal distaste.
Kennedy had hit rock bottom politically and personally. It was then, according to the authors, that a transforming event occurred. Kennedy met and married Victoria Reggie, a much younger attorney and daughter of a family friend. This personal stability, they allege, enabled Kennedy to rise from the ashes.
In this new phase of life, his Senate career was enhanced. Kennedy focused on fixing the undocumented immigrant situation. Earlier in his career he had fathered the Immigration Act of 1965, which ended the national-origins test that had effectively limited immigration to European countries. The diverse America we enjoy today is the product of his legislation. Although his attempt to legalize illegal aliens failed, the ground work was laid by Kennedy’s persistent lobbying.
In the Senate, Kennedy is known for his thoughtfulness, warmth and loyalty to members of his party and to his fiercest opponents as well. The same concern that he demonstrates to his extended family he shows to his Senate colleagues.
Perhaps his most powerful recent political act was his endorsement of Barack Obama for president on the eve of the Super Tuesday primaries. It can be argued that this dramatic announcement, in which he invoked his late brother, passed the mantel of Democratic leadership to Obama and helped make him president.
His final display of personal courage is evidenced by his reaction to the diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor. He has fought this disease with the same grace and tenacity with which he has fought for the rights of the poor, children, minorities, women, the elderly, gays and immigrants. It was this strength that enabled him to walk into the Senate on July 9, 2008, a month after brain surgery, to vote against President George W. Bush’s planned cuts in Medicare.
After the 1960 election, his brother John presented Kennedy with a cigarette case inscribed with a quote from the Gospel of St. Matthew: “And the last shall be first.” Perhaps it is from this memory that the “Last Lion” draws his strength.
Andrea M. Alonso is a partner in the firm of Morris Duffy Alonso & Faley.