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2 new Ted Kennedy biographies are not just for Boomers but for voters of all ages


Before the rise of Donald Trump or Barack Obama or Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, the definition of charisma in American politics was the Kennedys. Three Kennedy brothers were elected to the U.S. Senate and then ran for president. John Kennedy won and was assassinated. His brother Robert was running for president when he was assassinated. And Edward, known as Ted or Teddy Kennedy, was a senator and part of the Democratic Party conversation, as well as the national conversation, from the 1960s until he died almost four decades later. He served 46 years in the U.S. Senate and compiled an extraordinary record.

This fall has brought two enormous new biographies of Ted Kennedy, both by writers who have won numerous awards for earlier biographies on prominent figures. One is called "Ted Kennedy: A Life." It's by John Farrell. And Neal Gabler wrote "Against The Wind: Edward Kennedy And The Rise Of Conservatism." NPR's Ron Elving has read them both. Ron, congratulations. It's a lot of pages.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Thank you, Steve. Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: What makes this a moment to think deeply about Ted Kennedy?

ELVING: Steve, reading these accounts is like leafing back through 50 years of front pages. It's not just the headlines but the stories in detail as well. So people who were around for those times will find themselves reliving much of their own lives as well. But this should not be seen as just a couple of boomer books. The ultimate audience would be the people who did not live through those years, and most especially the Gen Z voters who got involved in the last two election cycles. Now, they've heard these names before - LBJ, Nixon, the Kennedys - but this is a chance for them to experience who those people were.

INSKEEP: This is interesting because Ted Kennedy, of course, was a celebrity. He was super famous, in some ways scandalous. But I believe it's argued that he was more significant for the less famous things that he did.

ELVING: Absolutely. Now, Ted Kennedy's one run for president - the one time he actually ran in 1980, it was ill-timed and poorly prepared. But the opposite seems to have been true of his Senate career. There is great care taken in these books to show Kennedy at his best, working behind the scenes, hiring extraordinary staff people. So in the end, he was important in every major effort by Democrats for nearly half a century, from civil rights and voting rights to the 18-year-old vote and the Americans with Disabilities Act, all the way to the Affordable Care Act in 2009, the year he died.

INSKEEP: He lasted long enough for the Senate, I suppose, to see Democrats lose control and regain control and lose control and regain control. Was he important when he was in the minority as well as the majority?

ELVING: Remarkably so. Ted Kennedy was built for the Senate. He was affable and even chummy with his colleagues across the aisle, including uber-Republicans such as Bob Dole of Kansas and Orrin Hatch of Utah. He was a master at insider negotiation and deal cutting, whomever he was dealing with. He would have the information when others didn't. He had command of the substance and the politics, incredible patience. He would talk to all sides, all interests, and he was tireless in pursuit of the best deal he could get.

INSKEEP: How does that match up, though, with the scandals, the infamous elements of his story? He cheated in college. He drank a lot, serial infidelity, Chappaquiddick, in which some - a woman who was with him died, drowned in a car accident - on and on.

ELVING: These authors present the ugly facts. Now, John Farrell devotes several chapters to Chappaquiddick, restaging that night in the summer of 1969, when, as you say, Kennedy drove off a bridge off Martha's Vineyard, left a young staffer named Mary Jo Kopechne trapped in his car. Farrell devotes quite a bit of time to a profile of Mary Jo Kopechne. She drowned. He waited nine hours to contact police. He looked for ways to cover it all up. In the end, while a judge found him negligent, he was not charged with manslaughter, as he might have been. But his national profile and his national ambitions would never be the same. There are other lesser-known incidents as well, and through it all, the long decline of Kennedy's first wife, Joan, a victim of his behavior and her own alcoholism. And we are shown much of this. We see Kennedy at what we imagine to be his worst.

INSKEEP: How did the biographers then judge the complexities of the man?

ELVING: They highlight how devastating Chappaquiddick was, not only for Kennedy and his family, but for Democrats generally, nationally, at a critical moment. And while it stands alone for its egregiousness, Chappaquiddick was not a completely isolated incident. Many people remember that 20 years later, Kennedy instigated a night of carousing in Palm Beach, Fla., that involved one of his nephews, William Kennedy Smith. And that night resulted in Smith being accused of rape. But in the end, while these authors don't defend these lapses - what some have called crimes - these authors do eventually move on. They continue their larger narrative, and they do not dismiss their subject.

INSKEEP: How did his legislative work change the country?

ELVING: There's no question that most every liberal cause and every piece of legislation that was passed - and also programs other than legislation, such as dealing with the AIDS crisis - benefited from the extraordinary efforts of Ted Kennedy. This may have been why he was forgiven for things that perhaps others might not have been, because he was such an effective champion for causes that no one else could have done the same way that he could.

INSKEEP: Did he also advance people?

ELVING: After Kennedy got over his own presidential ambitions, he was an important player in those of others. And in the last chapter of his life, he decided that he thought that the magic of his older brothers was revisited to some degree in a young first-term senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. And so he surprised many people by coming out foursquare for Obama when he was running against Hillary Clinton for the nomination in 2008 and pushing him in a way at a time with the kinds of voters that mattered the most for him to seize that nomination. It was a crucial role in the emergence of Barack Obama's presidency. And of course, he was there, at least in the early phases, to help pass the signature achievement of the Obama administration, the Affordable Care Act, which was also the fulfillment of Ted Kennedy's holy grail of legislative achievements.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ron Elving is reviewing two giant biographies of the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Ron, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.