Burton Hersh's new biography of Teddy Kennedy has me in its grip and won't let me go. I'm 245 pages into this 650-page book and I keep waiting for it to drag. No dragging in this one. As in the life of the senator one event follows another at breakneck speed.
Hersh has been watching the Kennedys for decades and writing about them for nearly as long and he really knows his subject. Since the 1960s he has interviewed everyone from Foster Furcolo and Estes Kefauver to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the maids at Bobby Kennedy's house, Hickory Hill, and he has been taking notes. It's all used here to fill out an astoundingly complete portrait of one of America's tragic figures.
Edward Kennedy was a man of tremendous appetites and he denied himself little, following the advice of his father: "If it's on your plate, eat it." Says Hersh, who by the way is a liberal and very sympathetic to Teddy Kennedy:
Control, never depend for anything on the loyalty or good intentions of people better placed than you. You have a wholly legitimate claim to absolute loyalty, unstinted performance, complete self-sacrifice from menials -- superheat their atmosphere to make them fervid with the ultimate importance of what you are doing for yourself. Afterward, you owe them very little. They were being paid.
The boys were introduced early to the presumptions of the predatory. There is no truly authentic counterclaim to what you are after except your own unanswerable insistence. Take whatever you want and deal with the consequences later -- attractive women are there for you.
Hersh is a fine writer. Here he is talking about the importance of labor unions to the Kennedys' political success:
And dominating everything, grunting, Labor, big rich all-overlapping Labor, with its savvy well-connected lobbyists wandering around Capitol Hill all day, its high-priced top-quality legal people like Arthur Goldberg and Joseph Rauh, Walter Reuther, its brain-bank of political action committee experts, its heavy old muscles still aching a little from the violence of its unforgotten past, its nose for who loved it truly -- and why -- impossible to fool.
I read about this book in one of two companion articles in last Sunday's New York Times, a roundup of conservative and liberal political books published recently. In this book Hersh does a good job of portraying the idealistic liberal millenarian quest for the perfect answer to every perceived problem, the sensitivity to search for and find problems that need solving, the longing to improve the lives of the little people, those perceived to be disadvantaged in any way, to feed and house them, to provide free education and health care, to clear the slums, to regulate business, to reach always for "social justice," as it is defined at that particular moment.
Kennedy's answer was always legislation. This is understandable. If you have a hammer everything looks like a nail; if you're a senator everything looks like it needs a law to prevent it, fix it, require it, improve it.
If you are interested in the legislative process there is much here for you. If you are interested in the sensational parts of Kennedy's life, you can skip the twelve pages about the poll tax amendment to the voting rights bill. If you want a window into corrupt big-city politics in the 20th century, you need look no further than Boston; this book is for you.