Edward “Teddy” Kennedy: “He had lived long enough,” Neal Gabler writes, “to fail, to sin, to stumble, to fall.”

From a Bookshelf column in the Wall Street Journal by Edward Kosner headlined “‘Catching the Wind’ Review: The liberal Lion in Full”:

Edward Kennedy is one of those “not quite” figures in America’s past, men of real significance in their time—Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Adlai Stevenson, Nelson Rockefeller—who never could capture the ultimate prize. . . .

Kennedy died of a brain tumor at 77 in 2009 after serving in the U.S. Senate longer than all but three other men. Over nearly 47 years he was a prodigious legislator who proposed no fewer than 2,500 bills and saw almost 700 of them enacted into law. Liberals hailed him as their Lion of the Senate. . . .

Mention Teddy Kennedy and people are likely to remember not only his eloquent 1968 eulogy for his murdered brother Robert but also his being expelled from Harvard for cheating on a Spanish exam; the Chappaquiddick disaster; his mumbly inability to tell Roger Mudd why he wanted to be president in that ineradicable 1979 TV interview; and his drunken carousing with his nephew William Kennedy Smith in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1991 before Mr. Smith was accused—though later acquitted—of raping a young woman.

Now Kennedy is the subject of a new biography by Neal Gabler, the adroit chronicler of Walter Winchell, Walt Disney and other 20th-century American icons. To call Mr. Gabler’s “Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour” monumental would be to insult the pyramids. . . .

There are already more than a dozen Kennedy biographies, plus his posthumous memoir “True Compass” (2009) and many other books in which he figures prominently. Even so, Mr. Gabler promises that the Ted Kennedy who emerges from his book won’t be “an altogether familiar one.” To a degree this is true. The rich narrative is studded with tasty factoids—Ted and Robert Kennedy called each other “Robbie” and “Eddie”—and lively quotes, anecdotes and vignettes. . . .

This can be a maddening book, especially if you have reservations about Ted Kennedy’s glory. In prodigious—often stupefying—detail, it follows Ted from his birth during the Depression to 1975, the year after Richard Nixon resigned and Kennedy, for the third time, backed away from running for president as anti-school busing mobs rampaged through Boston. All the liberal triumphs on Capitol Hill are here, the leadership on big issues from civil rights to health care to Vietnam—and all the failures, too, many self-inflicted.

Mr. Gabler can be hagiographic about Teddy Kennedy as the avatar of doomed late-stage liberalism in America, a tragic hero who mastered his destructive impulses to carry the flame. “He had lived long enough,” the author writes, “to fail, to sin, to stumble, to fall and fall out of favor. He had been publicly abased . . . and forced to ask for forgiveness. To his fiercest detractors, these missteps were unforgivable, though how much of their implacability was politics in the conservative gale and how much morality is impossible to say. But to those who loved him, these flaws were intrinsic to that love.”

He has a simple theory: Teddy was the helpless victim of family dysfunction—the youngest of nine children in a gilded household ruled by Joseph and Rose Kennedy. They are depicted as monstrous parents determined to raise an aesthetically perfect brood, some of whom would reach the pinnacle of American society and power as a rebuke to the WASP establishment that lorded it over the Irish-Catholic Kennedys and their kinsmen. . . .

In many ways the least gifted of the Kennedys’ four sons, Eddie grew up gut-sure of his inadequacy compared to Joe Jr., John and Robert. The philandering patriarch preached family first but was away most of the time and still dictated his children’s lives. “I don’t want any sourpusses around here,” he’d thunder. Rose, acting oblivious to his infidelities, compulsively flitted from Cape Cod to Palm Beach to Europe, plopping her youngest into one school after another. The boy found his place in the family hierarchy as the chubby charmer forever in trouble.

The Kennedys nurtured Teddy in their way. Despite his academic deficits, they got him into prep school at Milton Academy and sent him on grand tours of Europe en route to Harvard, where he majored in football until he was expelled in his sophomore year. As penance, he joined the Army—the first of his many lunges at redemption. Joe made sure that Teddy wasn’t put in harm’s way but assigned to a ceremonial unit in Versailles with weekends in Paris. Harvard readmitted him, and when he didn’t make the cut at Harvard Law School, a spot was found at the University of Virginia. . . .

With a law degree but no prospects, Ted was installed as a junior prosecutor in Boston, but his real job was working for his brother, John the senator, during his campaigns for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination and then against Richard Nixon. The next step was inevitable—running with no record in 1962 for JFK’s vacated seat in Massachusetts. This was the infamous primary race against Eddie McCormack, whose uncle was Speaker of the House. At their first debate, McCormack looked over at Kennedy and sneered, truthfully enough: “If [your] name was Edward Moore, your candidacy would be a joke.” Ted won anyway—with stealth help from his brother in the Oval Office. . . .

At first, Teddy played the humble freshman, holding his tongue at Jack’s old desk in the back row of the chamber and assiduously sucking up to the aging Senate bulls who ruled the club, many of them arch-segregationists like James Eastland of Mississippi. Eager and deferential, he charmed them as he had his parents and older siblings as a child. He turned serious after the six-month convalescence from his plane-crash injuries. Determined to bolster his civil-rights credentials, Kennedy fought a doomed effort for an anti-poll tax amendment to the 1965 Voting Rights Act against the strategic designs of now-President Lyndon Johnson and other backers of the legislation. . . .

One sure test of any Ted Kennedy biography is its treatment of the episode one midnight in July 1969, when the senator drove his car off a narrow wooden bridge near midnight on tiny Chappaquiddick Island, off Martha’s Vineyard. Kennedy escaped with his life but failed to rescue his companion, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, a former Bobby Kennedy staffer. Mr. Gabler devotes a hyperdetailed 54-page chapter to what he calls the “tragic accident” and its aftermath, and it’s exemplary of his approach to his subject. . . .

Deep in the book, Mr. Gabler gets around to Kennedy’s other reckless behavior—his bouts of heavy drinking and especially his philandering, another family legacy. His wife Joan’s alcoholism has been traced by many to her husband’s indiscreet cheating. She picked up the phone once and heard him talking to an old and continuing love, a blond jewelry designer in Palm Beach. He was rumored to have had affairs with countless others, so it was said, including Candice Bergen, Margaret Trudeau (the wild-child wife of the Canadian prime minister) and a “stunning” New York socialite.

That Ted Kennedy acted as a moral force in politics is central to the author’s argument that his career embodied the arc of liberalism in America—from the legacy of the New Deal through his brother Jack’s New Frontier, LBJ’s Great Society, brother Bobby’s civil-rights and antiwar crusades, and Ted’s own fight for Medicare for All. In this reading, Nixon led the reaction that culminated in the Reagan Revolution—and, by implication, the Age of Trump. But, as “Catching the Wind” documents more fully than ever, Edward Moore Kennedy, whatever his virtues, was always a fragile vessel for those dreams.

Ed Kosner was the editor of Newsweek, New York, Esquire and the New York Daily News.

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