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Biography of Edward Kennedy (1932-2009)

Edward Kennedy
Edward Kennedy

Edward Moore Kennedy (1932-2009) was the youngest of three brothers who played instrumental roles in the landmark movements for social justice and the struggle for progressive, active government which transfused American politics in the 20th century.

Edward inherited the mission from John and Robert Kennedy, who were murdered within a span of five years in the tumultuous 1960s. In four decades as a U.S. senator, liberal advocate and periodic presidential candidate he advanced the development of a more just and generous state, a characteristic of the Western democracies in the decades that followed World War II.

The liberal ideals that Kennedy championed are now under siege by forces of reaction and authoritarianism, in Europe and the Americas. It is timely to examine the liberal cause – to learn from its accomplishments and reversals, power and flaws - through the lens of his life and career. It ranged from the New Frontier and the Great Society years of the 1960s, through the conservative reaction of the Nixon, Reagan and Bush years, to the worldwide economic crash of 2008, the election of Barack Obama and the passage of a universal health care plan – the crowning brick in the liberal edifice – as Kennedy was dying in 2009.

The Affordable Care Act is but one of many landmark statutes that bear Kennedy’s legislative fingerprints.

He contributed to the two great victories for black Americans – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – which were passed in a time of mourning and tribute to his assassinated brother, President John F. Kennedy. Barely in his thirties, Edward had a meaningful role in the crafting of the immigration act of 1965 - the basis of a color-blind system which still operates today - opening the U.S. to millions of Asians, Latinos and southern Europeans and thus, literally, changing the complexion of his country. He began a lifelong crusade to bring affordable health care to all Americans.

Kennedy is as known for his faults as well as his strengths. His back was broken in the 1964 crash of a small twin-engine plane, in which the pilot and a fellow passenger died. The lingering physical pain of his injuries, and grief from his brothers’ deaths, fed a lifelong proclivity for drinking and the womanizing of which he had been taught, by his father and brothers, that Kennedy men were entitled.

In 1969, after a day of sailing and too much to drink, he drove off a crude wooden bridge on Chappaquiddick island, off the coast of Massachusetts. His car came to rest, upside down, in nine feet of water. His companion that night, a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. He did not notify the authorities until ten hours had passed, the life was gone from the young woman and traces of liquor had faded from his bloodstream. He was convicted of leaving the scene of a harmful accident and sentenced to two months in jail. Given his standing, the jail sentence was suspended. He made a televised explanation and appeal to the voters of Massachusetts and was reelected by comfortable margins in 1970, 1976, 1982, 1988, 1994, 2000 and 2006.

The guilt he bore from the island, mixing with other griefs, turned Kennedy to a life of frenetic activity, some of which led to the bottom of a glass, a comely companion and a tabloid roasting, and some to his restless, ceaseless pursuit of legislative accomplishment.

The Senate – the historic home of torchbearers and tycoons, parvenus and playboys, blowhards, rakes and drunkards – was, propitiously, an ideal setting. “You are back where you belong,” Senator Mike Mansfield, the majority leader, told his young colleague when Kennedy returned to the chamber after Kopechne’s death.

Kennedy’s engaging personality and political gifts – his jocular disposition, famous family, one-on-one negotiating skills – were assets, as were his way with a song, and his knack for after-hours carousing and camaraderie.

In this chamber of 100 strivers - realists schooled in the darker arts of politics, avarice and other iniquities - his escapades were met with a shake of the head, a shrug or a grin; they did not greatly limit his effectiveness, nor get in the way of a deal.

For more than four decades, Kennedy worked the Senate floor, as a clamorous partisan or (depending on the legislative climate) covert dealmaker, advancing the agenda of contemporary liberalism.

Kennedy lived to see Barack Obama sworn in as president, and to watch the Affordable Care Act move through Congress. In August 2009 he succumbed to a brain tumor. He was the third-longest serving senator in American history and acclaimed as a giant among lawmakers.

‘He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life, instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair, his florid, oversize face, his booming Boston brogue, his powerful but pained stride,’ read the New York Times obituary. ‘He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy character who persevered, drank deeply and sang loudly. He was a Kennedy.’

John Aloysius Farrell is an American author. He has written biographies of U.S. President Richard Nixon, House Speaker Thomas ‘Tip’ O'Neill, and defense 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. Richard Nixon: The Life was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Biography.

On September 15, 2022, Farrell has defended his biography as a PhD thesis in the aula of the Academy Building, University of Groningen. His research was supervised by prof. Hans Renders and prof. Doeko Bosscher. A press statement can be found here.

  • features a podcast with John A. Farrell.
  • Philip Terzian reviewed the book for the Wall Street Journal.
  • Thomas Mallon reviewed the book for the New York Times.
  • Review 'The Lion of Liberalism' in the Economist.
photo Christiaan Gevers
photo Christiaan Gevers
Last modified:13 February 2023 2.47 p.m.
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