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Ted Kennedy Bios Show Liberalism's Trials, and its Necessity

Liberalism is under assault. Already having suffered decades of reputational damage after Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan battered the word into oblivion, it is now rare to ever hear it with a positive connotation. The right wing continues to equate it with moral decadence and fiscal recklessness, while the hard left of the Democratic Socialists of America variety blames liberalism for everything from the ascendance of Donald Trump to extreme income inequality. 

The historically illiterate hatred of liberalism not only eliminates serious consideration of right-wing machinations and propaganda from political analysis, but also requires obliviousness to the achievements of democratic liberalism. Loosely defined, that’s the representative form of government, operating within a free market, that prioritizes individual liberties, protects minority rights, and marshals public goods and services in an attempt to cure, or at least mitigate, social ills. Beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, moving through the turbulence of the 1960s and ’70s, and extending all the way through the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama years, liberals gave the United States civil rights and gay rights; the fuller inclusion of women in political, economic, and cultural institutions; and a social welfare state that, although inadequate compared to its European counterparts, significantly reduces poverty and softens its effects. 

At precisely the moment when liberalism is facing criticism from the socialist left and under vicious attack from the fascist right, there are two new biographies of one of its leading tribunes: Edward M. Kennedy. In the first book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and biographer John A. Farrell turns his discerning eye toward Kennedy after gaining access to his diaries and personal papers. In Ted Kennedy: A Life, his approach to recalling the familiar triumphs and failures of Kennedy, from the myriad accomplishments of his legislative career to the catastrophe of Chappaquiddick, is Hemingwayesque. Writing in a minimalist style, Farrell largely leaves it to the reader to draw a conclusion about the meaning of Kennedy’s colorful life. 

Farrell’s sources are second to none, and he demonstrates his characteristic knack for establishing a strong story arc. Yet the straightforward journalistic tone and presentation has its flaws. Rather than couch Ted Kennedy’s victories and defeats in a depiction of America’s transformation from John F. Kennedy’s social welfare policies of the “New Frontier” to Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, Farrell is content to write about Kennedy’s life as if he were a protagonist in a novel. While his portrait is, generally, sympathetic, it feels too coldly withdrawn from the high stakes of Kennedy’s nearly 50 years as a leader of the Democratic Party. It also suffers from a few odd choices. For example, Farrell scrutinizes in painstaking detail when Kennedy cheated on exams at Harvard and was expelled, but dispenses with Kennedy’s reaction to JFK’s assassination in only a couple of pages. 

Despite this, Farrell manages to surprise the reader with new revelations. According to diary entries he uncovered, Ted Kennedy received personal assurances from Samuel Alito that he would not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade if he were on the Supreme Court. Unprecedented access to Kennedy’s papers enables Farrell to demonstrate exactly how much the Kennedy inner circle worried about the potential for violence and authoritarianism in right-wing politics—revelations that are quite forceful in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection and in an age of rising hate crimes. 

Read entire article at Washington Monthly