Against the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Rise of Conservatism, 1976-2009, by Neal Gabler

Nine stars

After being enthralled with the first volume of Neal Gabler’s biography of Ted Kennedy, I knew that I would have to come back for the second portion in short order. Gabler dazzles like few biographers I have ever read, providing context and insight into the life Kennedy lived while espousing the liberal dream in the first volume. With the winds beginning to blow towards conservatism, this second volume tackles that, as well as Kennedy’s greatest obstacle, the presidency. Trying to move out from his brothers’ shadows, Ted Kennedy had to decide whether he would run and how using his own merits might help him. Gabler does a phenomenal job at portraying Kennedy as a hard worker and passionate about the every day citizen, even in the face of significant conversation that sought to drown out his liberal flame. Poignant with some even more passionate entries than the first volume, Gabler does it again.

In the latter portion of volume one, Gabler presented the reader with the crossroads that Ted Kennedy faced in the mid-70s, with the political winds changing dramatically, The country had seen the rise of Nixon and the beginnings of a conservative change in their sentiments, followed by Watergate and the end of Vietnam, under President Ford. With the 1976 campaign for the White House heating up, Kennedy had a chance to toss his hat into the ring, but he chose to wait for another time, feeling that this was not his place. As he watched from the sidelines, an unlikely Democrat claimed the nomination and headed into the general election. Jimmy Carter appeared to be the antithesis of Kennedy’s liberal values and potential a Democrat in name only, something which worried Kennedy a great deal, and yet he remained outwardly quiet.

After Carter’s victory in ‘76, Kennedy had to work with the Administration, which proved painful. Carter did not share Kennedy’s values, trying to shut down the senator’s legislation, discussions, and any momentum that Kennedy might have. As Gabler puts it, Carter was always waiting for Kennedy to announce his campaign for 1980, which did not come until late in the lead-up to the primaries in January 1980. Kennedy waffled and weighed all his options, as America drifted further away from his liberal left towards the right and kept those the senator held dearest on the outside of the tent. When Kennedy did announce an intent to run against the incumbent Carter, it was a series of gaffes and a lack of connection to the people he long called his own that left the campaign drooping from the outset. As Gabler magically recounts in long chapters, the battle was on, though it took a long time to get going and Kennedy was always playing catch-up. Kennedy did appear to catch Carter, though it may have been a little too late. With Carter poised to capture the nomination and the Republicans locking up their candidate, Ronald Reagan, the fight was on for one final liberal push. Kennedy entered the 1980 Democratic National Convention hoping to challenge Carter on the floor and bring the party back to its liberal roots. It failed and Kennedy, seeing the writing on the wall, had to admit defeat, while promising never to let the winds of change extinguish his liberal flame.

Shaking off the pain of a defeat for the nomination, Kennedy watched Carter get pummelled in the election, with Reagan storming onto the scene. This was a battle that many media outlets thought Kennedy might have won had he been the Democratic nominee. Still, it was time for Kennedy to lick his wounds and hope that he could use his role in the Senate to rein in the Reagan Administration. As much as this might have been his plan, Kennedy appears to have dialled things back, according to Gabler. Feeling the conservative wind and how Reagan vilified the liberal perspective, Kennedy turned his attention to his own personal causes. It was only when a controversial Supreme Court nominee came before the Senate that Kennedy’s old ire returned and left Robert Bork embarrassed for all to see. Gabler shows how this was Kennedy’s time to shine and he did so, stymying the nominee and infuriating Reagan at the same time.

This ‘lay low’ technique continued after Kennedy chose not to run for president in 1988, clearing the way for VP George H.W. Bush to assume the role. Kennedy tried to push his liberal agenda and protect minorities from his perch, earning a few small victories with legislation to help those with disabilities and another push for additional civil rights. While Kennedy did make a small push on blocking Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, the spark came too late and was mired by Kennedy’s own personal issues with drink and tabloid scandal. This left Thomas to turn the tables on the Senate Judiciary committee and create a race issue out of something that had been sexual harassment claims by one of the nominee’s former colleagues. The family aura was quickly tarnishing and Ted Kennedy could not stand aside, as he was being painted with the same brush as some of his adult nephews, who found themselves in trouble with the law or in treatment centres. Even Kennedy’s own constituents wondered if it was time to step away from politics, as he was not proving to be an advocate for their needs, but rather dodging his own scandals.

This was a true wake-up call for Kennedy, who sought to realign himself to ensure that he had a purpose. His passion lay with legislating and representing the people of Massachusetts, which was strengthened when he ran in 1994 against his toughest Republican opponent yet, Mitt Romney, whose family had deep ties to national politics as well. Kennedy used this re-election campaign to find himself and reconnect with voters, showing that he still had the passion needed to serve and could put scandalous behaviour in the rear view mirror. Kennedy also used this time to work with President Bill Clinton on trying to forge new ground open some of his pet projects. While Clinton was passionate about healthcare he demurred when faced with the cost and the Herculean effort needed to pass it through a Congress led by ideological Republicans. Kennedy would return to Congress rejuvenated and help Clinton as best he could, with both legislative and social issues. Still, Kennedy had to wonder, as Gabler posits, whether this might be the path to his final swan song as an American politician and leader.

In a whirlwind of American political change, Kennedy saw the Democratic Party ebb and flow once more, particularly as the judicial branch weighed in on the 2000 presidential election. George W. Bush became the eventual leader but showed a willingness to look across the aisle and use Kennedy’s passions to help America, particularly with education reform. Gabler explores this odd relationship and how Ted Kennedy put partisan views aside to help children and enshrine their eduction into the American psyche. This collegiality was short-lived, though, particularly after President Bush began his War on Terror campaign, sending troops into Iraq and Afghanistan. Kennedy was adamantly opposed to the troop deployment, one of the only senators to voice those concerns, but received no support from his colleagues and proved to be a thorn in the side of the White House. Attempts to push through some important legislation proved insurmountable when many saw Ted as being unpatriotic for opposite gender US intervention. Could this have been the writing on the wall Ted Kennedy needed to see that his political career was done and that he ought to hang up his advocacy boots once and for all?

By the end of the Bush Administration, much had changed. A new tiredness with conservative ideals, packaged a number of ways by countless Republicans, left the electorate hungry for change. Kennedy could see that a new era of liberalism, or at least sustainable Democratic hope, had come to the party, particularly when a young Senator Obama began making waves. It was at this time that Ted Kennedy’s fallibility also showed its true colours, when he was diagnosed with an inoperable Brian tumour. Kennedy loud see the end was near and yet he wanted to ensure his country, his ideals, and his values were left to those who. old protect them. As Gabler presents a strong narrative in the final chapter, the country came to Ted Kennedy to offer their thanks, even politicians who used his name to rally support for the opposition . The Lion of the Senate and master of all things congressional would not be forgotten. The final Kennedy brother would soon be gone, but his mark would never fade. An outstanding two volume biography that is sure to touch any reader with the patience and open-mindedness to read it.

I have read many political biographies in my time, but Neal Gabler’s work stands apart from many. Gabler lays extensive groundwork about all aspects of Ted Kennedy’s life, which was full of struggles at each turn. Kennedy’s greatness is balanced with stumbles along the way, illustrated in a clear narrative style. There is so much material in this tome (let alone the opening volume) that many readers might find themselves overwhelmed, but Gabler synthesises and discusses things with ease. The themes emerge and come full circle throughout the narrative, allowing the attentive reader to bask in all the glory that Gabler has to offer. With long and detailed chapters, Gabler develops the message of Kennedy’s impact on American politics, while also dividing each segment into small sub-chapters, perhaps to aid with digestion. I could not have asked for more, though there is no doubt a great deal that was skimmed over, in order to get to the best parts of the Kennedy story. Those who have time and interest will surely not be disappointed whatsoever.

Kudos, Mr. Gabler, for this stunning portrayal of Edward Kennedy and America that. Saw a great deal of change over the years. I can only hope that some of your other work is just as intriguing.