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Has there ever been a more easily caricatured politician than Ted Kennedy? He's a dream come true for editorial cartoonists. Big red face, topped by a mass of white hair. Martini in one hand, comely woman in the other.
That's how his critics picture him, at least, but they might change their opinion of the senior senator from Massachusetts if they read "Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy."
Compiled by the Boston Globe after Kennedy's brain tumor was diagnosed, "Last Lion" details events that would have killed the career of most politicians. But not Kennedy.
There was the cheating on a Spanish test that got him booted from Harvard. The 1964 plane crash that broke his back and killed his closest aide. A nephew's rape trial. And, of course, the car crash on Chappaquiddick that led to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.
"Last Lion" explores all of these incidents, and it doesn't give Kennedy a hometown discount. Chappaquiddick, the writers say, was "a failure of princely indulgence, assuming he could do anything and have others clean up, or something closer to the opposite -- the faltering of a grief-stricken and damaged psyche, unable to confront his responsibilities."
If you want a peek inside America's royal family, this is a must-read, with details that only Boston Globe reporters could know. For instance:
At the time of John F. Kennedy's assassination, Robert Kennedy had had enough of their domineering mother and told Ted to go "call your mother and our sisters." Ted was the only Kennedy who seemed to relish his mother's daily notes about his grammar and appearance. He stopped being the baby of the family only when fate intervened. In the span of less than five years, Ted went from being the "other Kennedy" to being heir to the political legacy of his slain brothers, surrogate father to their children and head of the entire Kennedy clan.
Try as he did, he wasn't up to the task. He attended every first communion, every high school graduation, every birthday party. But he couldn't bring the discipline needed for the rudderless generation. Before the assassinations, "Teddy was the one who brought joy and laughter -- not order -- to the family," the authors write. He didn't have the gravitas of his brothers. What he does have is a record of legislative achievement. There are two places Kennedy is clearly at home -- on his sailboat, the Mya, and on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
"Last Lion" shows how he cultivated some of the most unlikely Senate collaborations in history -- Orrin Hatch, the conservative Republican from Utah, is one of his closest friends -- to compile a massive record that will stand the test of time.
At the funeral of his nephew, John Jr., Ted said, "We dared to think, in that other Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair." The fates have finally allowed a Kennedy man to comb gray hair, and "Last Lion" chronicles that life. It shows the entirety of Ted Kennedy, and that makes it a must-read for fans and critics alike.
Tim O'Brien is the Star Tribune letters editor. He's at 612-673-4778.