The Other Brother

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EDWARD M. KENNEDY: A Biography, by Adam Clymer. Morrow, 692 pp., $27.50.

ASKED BY an interviewer to name his personal strengths, Edward M. Kennedy

replied with a single word: perseverance. Not even the senator's most

implacable critic could argue with that.

He limped away from the smoking wreckage of a small plane, but his severe

spinal injury did not keep Kennedy from working his way back to the ski slope

and the tennis court. His political career survived several lurid scandals, any

one of which would have bought the average incumbent a lifetime sentence to

private law practice. He overcame a reputation as a lightweight beneficiary of

nepotism to become one of Capitol Hill's few genuine achievers in an era

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increasingly scarred by stalemate and pointless partisanship. As his Senate

tenure approaches the 40-year mark, Kennedy looms as a kind of ambulatory

monument. He inches relentlessly toward his next legislative goal while

symbolizing the highs and lows of two political generations.

In "Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography," Adam Clymer recounts this saga in

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dispassionate detail. Clymer, a New York Times writer and editor, first covered

Congress in 1963. That was just a year after the arrival of young Kennedy, who

possessed no visible qualifications other than having older brothers serving

as President and Attorney General. Clymer knows the legislative maze and its

denizens well. Few journalists are better qualified to explain the long,

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serpentine route a bill travels from idea to consummation.

Rarely does Congress accomplish anything more significant than memorializing

national turnip week unless unlikely alliances are formed. Kennedy learned this

lesson early and practices it to great effect. On a variety of important

issues-including civil rights, immigration reform, raising the minimum wage,

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equal opportunity for the disabled, health care reform-Kennedy, the

unreconstructed liberal Democrat, has made common cause with a changing cast of

Republicans. Frequently the result is an undramatic step forward, followed by

a new campaign for the next step. Success in Congress, one long-ago sage

observed, is measured in molehills traversed rather than in mountains scaled.

Kennedy, though a major personality who at times aspired to be president, isn't

too proud to take the molehills one at a time while keeping the mountains in

view.

Clymer is particularly effective in tracing Kennedy's endless struggle to

extend health care coverage, one of the worthy causes he has championed for

decades. After the Clintons' proposal for a massive national scheme collapsed,

Kennedy continued to pursue reform. Artful maneuvering and compromise finally

produced the Kassebaum-Kennedy bill, which assures the coverage of individuals

who might otherwise be bumped out by arbitrary insurance carriers. (Nancy

Kassebaum was then the moderate Republican heading the Labor Committee, but

Kennedy has drawn in several conservatives, such as Bob Dole and Orrin Hatch,

on other issues.)

The author does not hide his admiration for Kennedy's overall legislative

record and appears sympathetic to the liberal agenda. Still, Clymer chronicles

with equal energy the senator's less glorious moments as a partisan. While

leading the opposition to Robert Bork's confirmation as a Supreme Court

justice, Kennedy showed feral gusto. As Clymer aptly observes: "the Bork of

Kennedy's speech was a wild-eyed fascist and Bork the nominee was not." In

attempting to obstruct George Bush's Desert Storm strategy, Kennedy was dead

wrong on both the policy and politics of the issue. Further, his alarmist

predictions about massive American casualties bordered on the irresponsible.

Why Kennedy is frequently patient and thoughtful on certain complicated matters

while crude and callow on others is a fascinating question. This biography,

unfortunately, does not provide an answer. Neither does it give much insight on

the dark side of Kennedy's nature. Clymer analyzes the nuances of legislative

strategy and elections to the satisfaction of the most demanding wonk. But the

author seems to have only limited interest in probing the conflicted human

being whose personal flaws prevented him from making a serious bid for the

presidency and frustrated his many loyal supporters. The book recounts

Kennedy's numerous fiascoes-including Chappaquiddick, the boozing and

womanizing that helped wreck his first marriage, the weird episode in Palm

Beach that got a nephew charged with rape-but Clymer's rendition of these and

other bleak events merely refreshes one's memory. It does not add much to one's

understanding. The reader yearning for an intelligent, comprehensive history

of Kennedy

as ace legislator and political survivor must read this book. To get a real

grasp on Kennedy as protagonist of his own epic Greek tragedy, one must wait

for a very different species of biographer. Edmund Morris, are you listening?

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