Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour, 1932-1975, by Neal Gabler

Nine stars

A long-time fan of anything biographical about the Kennedy family, I eagerly turned to this, the first of two volumes about the life and times of Edward Kennedy. Neal Gabler explores the youngest Kennedy child, the one Joseph and Rose Kennedy deemed their ‘great accident’. Gabler uses this first volume not only to lay the groundwork for how Ted rose from familial oblivion to become a powerful force in American politics, but also counters it with some of the significant foibles he had during an era of liberalism. Full of stunning anecdotes and detailed accounts of political and social events, Gabler treats the reader to a stunning piece against the backdrop of how Camelot was still within the reach of the third Kennedy brother, though many things stood in his way.

As with any Kennedy biography, Gabler spends the opening portion laying the groundwork and exploring the lives of earlier Kennedys, particularly Joseph P. Kennedy and how he tried to develop the golden pathway for one of his offspring to sit in the White House. While Gabler spends a great deal of time exploring these topics, it serves well to glance over it for those who are well-versed in the family and their rise to power. Ted Kennedy, the ninth child and labelled as the ‘ultimate oops’ had a great deal to do in his life to prove himself and make a name worth of Kennedy glory,. While he was trying to fill the shoes of his brothers, John and Robert, as well as try not to be forgotten, Ted Kennedy forged his own path, complete with family rule bending and attempts to get away with what others could never fathom. This would set a small sense of entitlement for Ted Kennedy, though he would, at times, push the crutch away and make sure truth rang true.

When John ascended to the presidency, the Senate seat in Massachusetts needed a new face and Ted Kennedy provided the perfect man to fill it. While some felt him a place keeper, Ted Kennedy had high ambitions to use a Senate seat to help further those curses he found to be dear to him. A gritty fight in 1962 saw Kennedy cut his teeth on the hard work required to win political office, all while he sought not to let his name usher him into the seat without effort. It was this victory, coupled with the tragic death of JFK that left Ted Kennedy keen to make a difference and help keep the Kennedy name in good standing.

Gabler explores the early years of Kennedy’s time in the Senate as ones not only to forge a difference, but to find battles worth his time. With Vietnam growing exponentially and getting out of control, Kennedy tried to wrestle control and hear those whose growing voices of discontent could no longer be ignored. Walking a tightrope between the people’s wishes and President Lyndon Johnson’s leadership, Ted Kennedy tried not to come out to harm the Administration, but not appease them by pretending things were fine. Gabler uses these years as a wonderful contrast between Ted and Robert, two brothers fighting for the same thing, but taking such different approaches to criticism of Johnson.

While Ted Kennedy became a strong politician, he always deferred to Robert’s ambitions for the presidency in 1968, choosing to support his brother, especially with President Johnson chose not to run for re-election. Gabler explores the run-up to ‘68 and the year that was possibly one of the most political in modern US history, with the death of Martin Luther King, Vietnam’s bloody escalation, and the eventual assassination of Robert Kennedy. Crippled by the loss of another brother, Ted Kennedy entered another stage of mourning, while the country sought him to pick up the pieces and run as a Kennedy on the presidential ticket. While Ted would not do so, he harboured future ambitions and kept the Democratic Party wondering until the summer as to whether he would fill the void Robert’s death left on an almost sure victory at the polls. However, without a Kennedy on the ticket, the Democrats were trounced by Richard Nixon and a new era of American politics began. However, Ted Kennedy was no muted politician, eyeing 1972 as his time!

Events in the summer of 1969 changed all that. After Ted wrested control of his first leadership role in the Senate—that of Majority Whip—things took a turn. A party one night that led to a drunken car crash and young Mary Jo Kopechne trapped in a vehicle while Ted left the scene and informed the authority hours later, changed the narrative. As Gabler explores in a key chapter, all Kennedy aspirations ended as news reports came out about Kopechne and Kennedy’s murky reporting of her being trapped therein. Media took their pound of flesh and left Ted wondering if his senatorial career might be over. While it was a blemish, Kennedy appeared to weather the storm, albeit with a great deal of self-loathing and some punches in the headlines. Still, it left him bruised and kept White House officials certain that they had neutralized any Kennedy run in ‘72.

While Kennedy continued to push for liberal ideals and led the Nixon Administration to the edge, forcing admissions to protect those in need, there was a sense that Ted might be the poster boy for the little guy and that liberalism was not dead. As Gabler cites throughout, Nixon tried to push conservatism on America, in hopes that they would see the need after too many years of Democrats in the White House or appeasing policies pushed by Eisenhower. Nixon began to show his true colours as the 1970s began, helping Ted Kennedy to reclaim his title as ‘Shadow President’ coming into the 1972 Campaign. While Kennedy did not want the mantle of Democratic nominee, the Party and many around him sought to push him into the ring. Might this be Ted’s turn to shine?

While Kennedy did not take the electoral bait, he did raise the concern of Nixon. Gabler explores how the Watergate antics may not only have been about general Democrat spying, but more specifically related to th Kennedy wave of support, which needed to be neutralised. Kennedy remained in touch with the goings-on and would not stand down as Congress began hearings in order to get to the bottom of it all. It was also this time that Kennedy also found a new passion to champion; health care. Specifically, the role of public health are in America proved to be something that Ted Kennedy could not ignore. He pushed for more legislation on the topic, as The Nixon Administration tried to tap the brakes and keep the country from moving too far to the left. While the topic did show Kennedy’s colours, Ted wanted to keep those who felt through the cracks from being lost and left to live in squalor.

As politics never stands still, Kennedy found himself in a whirlwind. Nixon fled Washington in disgrace, a new president—Ford—sought to turn America back into a moderate nation, and 1976 was just around the corner. Ted may finally have his crack at the White House, where liberalism could flourish and the country could put the nightmare that was ther Nixon presidency aside. However, it would not be a foregone conclusion, nor would the Democrats embrace him as their knee jerk saviour. It would take time and effort to red the political tealeaves and see if the country might yet be ready for another Kennedy on the campaign trail. Ted Kennedy had done so much in the Senate that this could be a gamble without a guaranteed victory. Neal Gabler teases the reader as the tome ends with the happenings of 1975 and how Kennedy stood at a crossroads, though he had vocalised 1976 as ‘not being the right time’. It was time to check the winds of power, which had been blowing towards liberal victory, but there was a gale on the horizon which could bring a gust of conservative sentiment and force Kennedy to stand firm to keep America on course.

While I have read many political biographies in my time, Neal Gabler’s opening salvo about Ted Kennedy has got to be one of my favourites. It lays extensive groundwork, while also telling stories in such an easy fashion. Kennedy’s ascension to power and repeated stumbles are illustrated in a clear narrative style, while addressing things in a chronological fashion. There is so much material here that many readers might find themselves in a panic, but Gabler synthesises things with ease, offering clear direction throughout. The themes develop effectively and the attentive reader can see where things are headed, without being too overwhelmed. Kennedy’s passions can easily be understood, as can the impediments he had during an early consideration of higher office. With a second volume to come, I can only hope that it proves as captivating and full of anecdotes. There is a great deal yet to come and I am eager to see how Gabler handles it. Let’s get it loaded and see how the story progresses, with Kennedy’s most important decisions to come in an era of staunch conservatism.

Kudos, Mr. Gabler, for this first volume of the life and times of Edward Kennedy. You have me itching to get to the second volume in short order!