Books: Teddy and Robert

Two books rebalance the myths and realities of the younger Kennedy brothers

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Edward M. Kennedy, despite his long career in the U.S. Senate, is still often known as Teddy, the diminutive attached to him as the youngest brother in his powerful family. The nickname persists because he was blessed and cursed by the gift of years that let him lead a full and well-publicized life that could only diminish him against the gargantuan mythology grown up around his murdered brothers John and Robert.

Two new books, taken together, right that imbalance somewhat. Edward M. Kennedy, A Biography by New York Times reporter Adam Clymer (William Morrow; 692 pages; $27.50) is a painstaking reconstruction of the Senator's life that winds up placing him alongside such other Senate giants as Hubert Humphrey and Robert Taft. In Love with Night: The American Romance with Robert Kennedy by Ronald Steel (Simon & Schuster; 220 pages; $23) is a hard-eyed rumination on the difference between the real (and of course flawed) Robert Kennedy and the popular memory of his greatness.

Clymer reconstructs with impressive and sometimes exhausting detail all the major legislative struggles Ted Kennedy has had in his nearly four decades in the Senate, whether they were winning efforts or losing battles. He recounts Kennedy's steadfast and often eloquent defense of the poor and the disadvantaged. But the description of Kennedy's failed presidential campaign in 1980 is, because the campaign itself was inept and ill considered, devastating. Here was the heir to the Kennedy political myth, the beneficiary of more loyal political talent than any other candidate in history, making a fool of himself and damaging a sitting Democratic President in the process.

Ted Kennedy's personal failings, including the fatal car crash at Chappaquiddick, his flagrant womanizing and broken marriage, his excessive drinking, his enabling role in the boozy evening that led to his nephew William Kennedy Smith's trial (and acquittal) for rape--all are dealt with matter-of-factly and unsensationally, but not without judgment. Clymer describes these episodes as they were: egregious cases of irresponsible behavior that disqualified Kennedy from ever being President. But he also paints a sympathetic picture of a lonely man who finds love with his second wife Vicki.

Still, after plowing through the facts of this Kennedy's life, one wonders what Clymer makes of this man. Is Ted Kennedy a failure? Were the burdens of these public tragedies he endured too much for anyone to bear and thus responsible for the youngest brother's shortcomings? Clymer chooses not to say very much. The final chapter is only 10 pages long and recounts Kennedy's role as a counselor to Bill Clinton during the Monica thing. Here the experience of his own humiliations was brought to bear. Clinton is quoted saying that Kennedy's advice was always simple: "It's just sort of get up and go to work, just keep going, and remember why you wanted the job in the first place." Concludes Clymer: "A son of privilege, he has always identified with the poor and the oppressed. The deaths and tragedies around him would have led others to withdraw. He never quits, but sails against the wind." The reader is left to wonder just what gives Kennedy the strength to do so.

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