The latest in the publisher’s oral history project: Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009).
Over the course of these dense 500 pages, we learn that Kennedy was a complex personality who became an effective lawmaker and one of the last eminent representatives of a now-quiescent political philosophy: liberalism. Editor Perry (Presidential Studies/Univ. of Virginia; Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch, 2013, etc.), an authority on the Kennedy family, assembles a rich mélange that displays her subject’s “multifaceted personality—marked by an infectious joie de vivre, a profound humanity, and, sadly, feet of clay.” A mediocre student, Kennedy preferred football to studying at Harvard. Even before graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law (Harvard’s rejected him), he managed brother John’s 1958 Senate re-election campaign, where his charm and energy served him well. After helping JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign, he coveted and easily won John’s vacant Senate seat in 1962. However, disasters dogged a long career: his brothers’ assassinations in 1963 and 1968, nearly fatal injuries in a 1964 air crash, his son’s leg amputation for cancer in 1973, and the still murky 1969 car accident that killed campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne and probably eliminated his chance of becoming president. By the 1970s, with Kennedy situated in a safe Senate seat, the book becomes a record of his political passions. Paying for his son’s expensive chemotherapy was easy, but he noticed other parents had mortgaged their houses. This began a lifetime fight for national health insurance, which joined campaigns for immigration reform, against discrimination in housing, and in favor of women’s rights and (ahead of his time) gay rights and gay marriage. His private life receives its due, but Kennedy has had a lifetime to formulate insightful explanations, so readers will learn little new.
A valuable historical record, but transcribed interviews are often a tough slog, so many readers will prefer to wait for historians to absorb and interpret the material.