Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Book Review: Ted Kennedy: Profile of a Survivor, by William H. Honan (1972)

My battered paperback copy of Ted Kennedy: Profile of a Survivor, by William H. Honan, 1972.

Senator Ted Kennedy in 1971.

A really strange drawing of Ted Kennedy on the cover of Time magazine in November 1971. This was when Kennedy was touring the country on behalf of other political candidates, as chronicled by Honan in the book.
Ted Kennedy survived numerous traumas during the 1960’s. In 1963 his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. In 1964 Ted survived a plane crash that left him hospitalized for several months. In 1968 his brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated. In 1969, Ted drove his car off of a bridge on Chappaquiddick, and his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne drowned. It’s altogether fitting that journalist and author William H. Honan titled his 1972 book Ted Kennedy: Profile of a Survivor. 

Honan’s book isn’t a biography of Kennedy, but rather sketches of Kennedy that illuminate different aspects of his personality. Honan wrote three articles about Kennedy for The New York Times Magazine in 1969, 1970, and 1971, and these articles form the basis of Profile of a Survivor. When I was doing research about the Chappaquiddick incident for my recent review of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Black Water, I read some excerpts from Profile of a Survivor, and they piqued my interest enough to read the entire book. Honan had excellent access to Ted Kennedy during a time when Kennedy’s career was in flux, which makes Profile of a Survivor an interesting read. 

After Bobby’s assassination and again after Chappaquiddick, Ted Kennedy thought seriously about giving up public life. It would have been easy for him to simply not run for re-election to the Senate in 1970 and do something else with his life. Friends worried about Ted’s safety urged him to seek the protective cloak of a life lived away from the glare of the spotlight. After losing two of his brothers to assassination, no one would have blamed Ted Kennedy for turning away from public life. But he didn’t, and I think it’s a measure of his strength and courage that he simply kept going. Honan reveals in the book that Kennedy received 355 death threats between 1963 and 1971. (p.39) In an interview with Kennedy, Honan bluntly says, “Your running for President, this member of your family said, would be an unfair temptation to all the disturbed people in this country. Do you look at it that way?” Kennedy responded, “No, I don’t. If you took it lightly and said there was nothing to it, you’d be a fool. On the other hand, if you worried about it all the time, you’d be valueless. So you have to bring these two things into balance and make an evaluation. And you have to think of what this means in terms of the other people in your life.” (p.41) 

Honan makes it clear throughout the book that he thinks that Kennedy will run for President in 1972. Of course, history quickly proved Honan wrong, as Kennedy did not run for the Democratic nomination in 1972. And Kennedy turned down George McGovern, the eventual Democratic nominee, when McGovern offered him the Vice Presidential spot on the ticket. The fact that Kennedy did not run for President in 1972 inevitably makes Profile of a Survivor dated, as Honan tries to spin Kennedy’s statements denying that he’s running into evidence that Kennedy will run. Honan even sees Ted’s wearing a pair of cufflinks that belonged to JFK as a sign that he will run for President. (p.21) Nevertheless, the book is an interesting study of Kennedy during a turbulent time.

It’s clear throughout Profile of a Survivor that the pain of losing his brothers was still close to the surface for Ted Kennedy. In 1971 Kennedy lost his position as majority whip of the Senate. Honan asked him if this defeat had hurt. Kennedy responded by saying, “There’s something about me I had hoped you would understand. I can’t be bruised. I can’t be hurt anymore. After what’s happened to me, things like that just don’t touch me, they don’t get to me.” (p.35) 

Kennedy’s ambivalence about politics during this period of his life comes through in an interview he gave to Honan in 1970, as he was running for re-election to the Senate. “I don’t mean that campaigning is without rewards. I meet people. There is great warmth, and that’s always a pleasure to experience. But a lot of the thrill, and the, well, the sort of…excitement is gone for me. I expect it to be gone forever.” (p.95)  

Honan followed Kennedy around as Kennedy toured several states in late 1971, his first big speaking engagements for other candidates since his re-election to the Senate the year before. Honan thought the trip was a way of Kennedy testing the waters for a possible Presidential run the next year. In his speeches Kennedy attacked the Nixon administration, and one wonders if they were an inspiration for Robert Redford’s character Bill McKay’s campaign speech in the 1972 film The Candidate. Kennedy’s speech includes the lines, “Nixon said he would bring America together, and two hundred million people said Amen. That promise lies broken now, broken like all the others, shattered by an administration that has set black against white, rich against poor, old against young, business against labor, north against south.” (p.55) These lines in Kennedy’s speech are strikingly similar to this one that Bill McKay delivers in The Candidate

Ultimately, Ted Kennedy only ran for President once, when he challenged President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. Kennedy’s campaign was probably best described as pointless, as even he didn’t seem to know why he was running. Even though his campaign was obviously a lost cause, Kennedy kept pressing until the Democratic convention, and even then he tried to change the rules of the convention to allow delegates to break away from their chosen candidate after the first ballot. However, Kennedy’s concession speech at the convention was one of the highlights of his career. At the end of the speech Kennedy said, “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” Had Kennedy been so eloquent during the campaign he might have fared better. Seen from the vantage point of history, Kennedy’s best chance at becoming President was probably in 1976, when Jimmy Carter defeated incumbent Gerald Ford. But would Kennedy have won had he run in 1976? It’s impossible to say, obviously, since it didn’t actually happen. A Kennedy victory in 1976 would by no means have been a sure thing, as Carter’s margin of victory over Ford was actually quite small. But discontent with Ford’s pardon of Nixon, and with Republicans in general, plus Kennedy’s charisma might have sent him to the White House. 

Ted Kennedy was granted the one thing his brothers were not: the gift of time. Ted was more patient than Jack and Bobby, and he was a much better Senator than either of them. One of my favorite anecdotes about the Kennedy brothers dates from the time when both Bobby and Ted were in the Senate. They were sitting in the middle of some endless committee hearing, and a bored Bobby passed a note to Ted that read, “Do we have to sit here and listen to this?” Ted wrote back, “Yes.” Ted understood how the Senate worked, and he worked hard to become an extremely effective lawmaker. Kennedy remained in the Senate until the end of his life in 2009, always fighting for what he believed in.

No comments: