The Shadow President: Ted Kennedy in Opposition
By Burton Hersh
219 pp., $23
The Kennedy family has paid a heavy price for fame, fortune, and power.
Family members, including Sen. Edward Kennedy, have sometimes made matters worse by their own behavior: most recently, the alleged affair of Michael Kennedy, the son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, with a teenage babysitter.
John F. Kennedy Jr. conceded a few days ago to The Boston Globe that his family's many problems "sell ... newspapers." He added: "Regrettably, maybe we keep providing them material."
Burton Hersh, an author friendly to the Kennedys in "The Shadow President: Ted Kennedy in Opposition," explores this burden and how Senator Kennedy has dealt with it in carving out a public career that turns out to have accomplished far more than either of his martyred brothers, John and Robert.
The point is not to wallow in Kennedy's admitted personal failings, although Hersh does anything but cover them up. The author wants to make clear how Kennedy has overcome those failings and how doing so has affected his public accomplishments.
The senior senator from Massachusetts is deeply loved by liberals and deeply disdained by many conservatives, who for years have used him as a fund-raising whipping boy. Beyond the rhetoric, however, few have ever sought to understand Kennedy's motivations and private pain. This is what Hersh illuminates.
Consider for a moment: You are in public life. Both of your famous brothers have been murdered by assassins; one while president, one while running for president. You become the standard bearer for a family that perhaps has never taken you seriously. You have to call home every day to assure your frightened wife and children that you are OK.
Trying to cope with the constant fear, your wife becomes an alcoholic. Your children are deeply troubled. One loses a leg in a battle against cancer. Your back is seriously injured in a plane crash and troubles you daily.
That's what Ted Kennedy has coped with since the 1960s. That is the background to everything else that has happened. None of this is to excuse Kennedy's flaws. But Hersh shows how Kennedy has gone on to accomplish so many things: "Unlike his two brothers, who in the end had taken the government by storm," he writes, "Edward Kennedy ... grasped that it was possible to build influence out in a place like the Senate in such a way that in the end one becomes impregnable."
Hersh paints a picture of a Kennedy with his finger in the dike, singlehandedly holding off the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s and the Contract With America in the '90s.
Many will dispute this version of history, but certainly Kennedy was the key player in defeating Judge Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination. The list of legislative achievements is simply too long to recount here.
The book is not without flaws and it's basically for political junkies: Its simplistic, all-Republicans-are-evil subtheme will offend many. But whatever your opinion of Ted Kennedy, this book can help you understand what makes him tick.
* Lawrence J. Goodrich is the Monitor's congressional correspondent.