Review: ‘Ted Kennedy’ sweeping account of senator’s life

“Ted Kennedy: A Life,” by John A. Farrell (Penguin Press)

In his new biography of Ted Kennedy, John A. Farrell describes a letter Joseph Kennedy sent his youngest son telling the teenager he had to choose between a serious or non-serious life.

“I’ll still love you which ever choice you make,” the elder Kennedy wrote. “But if you decide to have a non-serious life, I won’t have much time for you.”

Kennedy certainly lived a serious life, Farrell’s sweeping biography “Ted Kennedy: A Life” makes clear. But Farrell is not afraid to examine complicated aspects of Kennedy’s life, which makes this biography worth the time of any reader interested in our nation’s political history.

Farrell, who examined a similarly complicated figure with his biography of Richard Nixon, is the perfect choice for chronicling Kennedy’s life.

The book explores how Kennedy’s grief over his brothers’ deaths and the shadow it cast over his life motivated him, for good and bad.

This includes Kennedy’s fatal car accident on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969 that killed Mary Jo Kopechne and the senator’s decision to wait hours after the accident to report it to police.

Mining a trove of materials such as Kennedy’s diary and the papers of historian Arthur Schlesinger, Farrell offers an unvarnished look at the accident and Kennedy’s other shortcomings throughout his life.

The book also examines the impact of Kennedy’s career on the nation, including his decades-long advocacy for healthcare reform that became a reality as his final days approached.

It also offers an look at Senate politics that at times rivals Robert Caro’s multi-part biography of Lyndon Johnson, with Kennedy navigating the politics and egos of the chamber.

The unlikely alliances he formed with Republicans like George W. Bush, John McCain and Orrin Hatch may seem like a foreign concept to many observing today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere in Washington. The book describes in detail how crucial the alliance with Hatch was in crafting legislation funding AIDS and HIV research, prevention and education.

Farrell’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in the politics of our era, and in understanding a complex figure whose policy achievements were as numerous as his vices.

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