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.

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!