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Diaries offer unique insight into life and work of Ted Kennedy

05 September 2022

American writer and journalist John Farrell has unearthed new evidence in his biographical research into the life and work of Ted Kennedy, showing that the American politician initially tried to cover up his involvement in the fatal automobile accident he caused in 1969. Farrell was able to draw on the diaries of Kennedy, his advisor Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and other previously unpublished sources. Farrell hopes to receive his PhD on 15 September from the University of Groningen.

Ted Kennedy
Ted Kennedy (Photo: United States Senate, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ted Kennedy (1932-2009) was the brother of former President John F. Kennedy and former senator Robert F. Kennedy. Like his brothers, who were both assassinated in the 1960s, he played an important role in American politics and the fight for social justice. Kennedy was a Democratic senator for the state of Massachusetts for more than four decades and was the third longest-serving senator in American history at the time of his death. He contributed to the two great victories for black Americans: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also fought for decades for legislation to make affordable health care possible for all Americans, which eventually led to the Affordable Care Act, which passed in 2010 and is best known as Obamacare.

Farrell's biography provides not only a thorough account of Kennedy's political career, but also new insights into a remarkable event in his private life: the accident he caused on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969, which took the life of a young campaign aide, Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy left the scene of the accident and did not alert the authorities until ten hours later. The accident haunted Kennedy all his life, in part because he was never clear about what exactly happened on that night.

For his research, Farrell inspected the diary of Arthur Schlesingers Jr., a close friend of Ted Kennedy and former advisor to both President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. His diary research reveals that, in the hours after the fatal accident, Kennedy confessed to his sister Jean that he had sought to conceal his involvement in Kopechne's death by surreptitiously returning to his hotel and appearing before a night clerk in the hope of manufacturing an alibi. Kennedy was sentenced to two months in prison for leaving the scene of the accident. In keeping with the law at the time, his punishment was suspended.

Despite the accident and the conviction, he was elected to the Senate seven times in a row between 1970 and 2006. Nevertheless, the accident and its aftermath damaged Kennedy's political career. According to Farrell's research, the political vulnerability caused by the accident led Kennedy to decline the opportunity to hold public hearings on the Watergate scandal with key witnesses in the fall of 1972, and also kept him from joining in the efforts to keep conservative Supreme Court nominees, most notably Clarence Thomas, from the bench.

Farrell concludes that Kennedy, despite his personal shortcomings, was a consequential political figure. He argues for the importance of thorough biographical research to assess the character and contributions of politicians. In his portrayal of Kennedy, Farrell defends the thesis that biographical research - examining all sides and aspects of a leader's life - can be a curative in an era of hyper-polarisation, when journalism, history and truth are under fire.

John Farrell
John Farrell

About John Farrell

John Aloysius Farrell has written biographies of US President Richard Nixon, House Speaker Thomas 'Tip' O'Neill, and defence attorney Clarence Darrow. He is a former White House correspondent and Washington editor for The Boston Globe and a former Washington bureau chief and columnist for The Denver Post. His book Richard Nixon: The Life was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Biography. This PhD research at the Biography Institute of the University of Groningen, is supervised by Prof. Hans Renders and Prof. Doeko Bosscher.

Last modified:29 August 2022 3.46 p.m.
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