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!

Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight that Broke the Democratic Party, by Jon Ward

Nine stars

Many have heard the Kennedy family referred to as living in a modern Camelot. Powerful patriarch, Joseph, and his sons strove to make a difference in the political realm. But when did it all come to an end for them and how did America turn away from this glorified view of the Kennedys? Perhaps they never have, though Jon Ward argues that the political Camelot came crashing down with the 1980 Democratic National Convention, dragging the Party along with it. All this primarily due to an embittered campaign for a presidential nominee. Incumbent President Jimmy Carter took the stage at Madison Square Gardens to seek the formal nod by delegates to take the Democrats into the campaign to face the electorate in November. Standing in his way was Edward ‘Teddy’ Kennedy, the last of the political brothers and a powerhouse all his own. Ward takes the reader on a journey to see how these men destroyed their political bases, the Party, and all but handed Ronald Reagan the presidency in 1980, leaving the country in awe during a time it needed solace the most. Opening with great biographical narratives told in parallel, Ward discusses the upbringing of both men—Kennedy with a silver spoon lodged in his mouth, while Carter sweated it out picking peanuts—and how different they were. Kennedy had politics in his blood, but the shadow of his two brothers seemed to stymie his ability to stay on the beaten path. Carter, a respected Navy veteran, sought to promote his progressive ways in the Deep South, where segregation and racism were the lifeblood of politics. Coming up through the ranks, both men had their foibles, which lingered with them, though Kennedy’s 1969 Chappaquiddick driving debacle that left a young woman dead would seem to have overshadowed much of Carter’s aligning himself with racists in order to secure both the Georgia governor’s mansion and a 1976 run for president. While both men knew the other only in passing, they remained on one another’s radar. Kennedy passed up the chance to run in ‘76, but many felt that he was gearing up for ‘80, though he remained uncommitted. Meanwhile, Carter sat in the Oval Office and faced economic disaster at a time when the American people could not accept anything less than the prosperity they felt the world’s superpower deserved. While Carter had some international successes, these were overshadowed by long gas lines and protests by the American people. Kennedy toiled in the US Senate to create needed legislation for healthcare reforms and tax breaks that would help the middle class. As they geared up for the 1980 campaign, Carter and Kennedy both sought to take the Democratic Party in their own direction, though it was the latter’s decision to challenge a sitting president that left Carter promising to ‘whip his ass’ even before the last Prince of Camelot had formally entered the race. Speaking of entering the race, Ward goes into detail about a CBS special on Teddy Kennedy before he announced, which depicted the man as one who could not dodge the Chappaquiddick disaster from a decade before and had no clear reason for entering the race, even though he was seen as an odds-in favourite and wanted to shape policy in new directions. From there, the primary season began, allowing both men to claw at one another and make gains in different ways. Kennedy stumbled out of the block and found financial limitations paralyse his progress, while Carter was trying to juggle the Iran hostage crisis, which was yet another black mark on his reputation. Even when Carter had the needed delegates to win, Kennedy would not concede, crafting an idea about releasing delegates from their primary commitments when they arrived in New York. Bloodied and bruised, they arrived for the convention to a raucous, yet highly divided Democratic base, all while GOP candidate Ronald Reagan sat back and basked in the knowledge that he would obliterate either man, come November. Ward offers a wonderfully detailed description of the goings-on at the Democratic Convention, including Kennedy’s last attempt to wrestle control away from the sitting president. However, nothing could outdo the events surrounding the last night, when Kennedy handed Carter the snub seen round the world. From there, it was a rocky push through the general election campaign, where Reagan all but handed victory to Carter, who fumbled many chances to bury the ‘television lightweight’. In the end, with Carter trounced and the Democrats in disarray, both men turned away from the presidential limelight. Carter was shunned by his party and turned to a life of humanitarian aid and writing, while Kennedy spent one final decade as a philanderer, while honing his skills as a senator and helped bring the institution together before his death. While it is impossible to know what might have happened in 1980, had things been a little different in the primaries or during the election, there is no doubt that the 1980 left a sour taste in the mouths of many watching the implosion of the Democratic Party by two men who refused to compromise. Camelot is gone, left crumbled by a bumbling third son and other relatives who have passed on. Gritty political battles are also a thing of the past, at least those played out on the convention floor during prime time. But, as we continue to see today, tearing a party apart remains a game that some play for the fun of it, leaving some to wonder if the GOP will resurrect the bloodbath this book depicted in 2020. A powerful narrative that engages the reader with anecdotes and historical accounts, sure to educate and entertain in equal measure. A must-read for political fanatics such as myself, especially those who love American politics.

While I am a fan of political history, particularly as it relates to presidential politics, this book stood out as something even more exceptional. Jon Ward delivers not only a description of the battle for the Democratic nomination in 1980, but serves to present a well-rounded biographical piece of the two main contenders. Mixing in many of the political flavours of the time, Ward supports his claims that this was to be the true litmus test of how the Democrats could meld two of their major factions ahead of another clash with the Republicans. Vowing not to be as criminal as Nixon or as blazé as Ford, the Party wanted to build on its successes, while also trying to ignore some of the domestic disasters that had befallen the Carter Administration since January 1977. In doing so, two men who refused to bow to one another began a battle that would ensure no stone was left unturned and allowed the world to watch as they destroyed one another. Unity was second to victory in August of 1980, with a sitting president being forced to fight for his own party’s stamp of approval, though it was from the last man in a family that had owned the Democrats for decades. Ward uses not only press coverage, but interviews, behind the scenes candid depictions, as well as poll sentiments at the time to develop a narrative that permits the reader to feel right in on the action. Vicious attacks were lodged and stubbornness helped disintegrate any form of coming together before the prime time disaster that encapsulated the Democratic Party coming apart. Who was to blame for all of this? Ward offers some suggestions in his powerful prose, though it is up to the reader to decide in the end. With powerful chapters full of research, Jon Ward offers readers that detailed look into the political goings-on leading up to the 1980 Convention and how it took years for the Democrats to recover and unite to defeat their GOP opponents, at least for the White House. I am so pleased this book found its way onto my radar and hope to find more in line with this style soon.

Kudos, Mr. Ward, for a great story of political undoing in the modern age. I will have to find more of your work, especially if it is as easy to comprehend.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: