Good Ted, Bad Ted: The Two Faces of Edward M. Kennedy
by Lester David
Publisher – Birch Lane Press
Rating – 7/10
Summary – Revered and reviled, Ted Kennedy captivated political junkies for nearly 50 years. Author Lester David recounts his career through the early-1990s in Good Ted, Bad Ted. While not the definitive Ted biography, Good Ted, Bad Tad is an interesting, quick read.
Review – Though often told, the Kennedy family’s story still fascinates. From the family’s immigration from Ireland, to untold wealth, to the Presidency in about 100 years, they are in some ways the embodiment of the American dream. Though less celebrated than his brothers, to me, Ted Kennedy is more interesting. His public life occurred at a time when the family’s influence was beginning to wane and the public took a more-jaundiced view of public officials. (If I can be forgiven a flourish, one could argue that Ted paid for some of the sins of his family).
Split Personality – The Political
Author David admires Ted’s public career. He portrays Ted as a born politician at home in the U.S. Senate with many legislative achievements to his credit. (The book might be better if David acknowledged that there are many who staunchly opposed Kennedy’s view of an expansive government). David depicts Ted as a tireless worker who put in the hours to understand the legislation crossing his desk. But there was another side…
Split Personality – The Personal
Vice is much more interesting than virtue and it is in recounting Ted’s many shortcomings that Good Ted, Bad Ted really shines. David devotes particular attention to Ted’s unsuccessful marriage to Joan Kennedy, which lasted from 1958-1982. In David’s account, the women who married the Kennedy men were left to “sink or swim” without much emotional support from their husbands. Artistic Joan was unsuited to political life and endured Ted’s constant philandering. Eventually, she became an alcoholic before finding the strength to divorce Ted.
Good Ted, Bad Ted really shines in recounting Ted’s personal decline after his divorce from Joan. During the 1980s, Ted was adrift, sinking deeper into alcoholism and debauchery, culminating in Ted’s presence in Palm Beach during his nephew William Kennedy Smith alleged rape of a woman in 1991. Few of the Kennedy books focus on the 1980s and early-1990s and Good Ted, Bad Ted is worth reading for this material alone.
On The Presidency
David’s take on Kennedy’s pursuit of the Presidency is simple – Kennedy simply didn’t want it. This may be true, but he simply doesn’t offer a lot of evidence for this view. He briefly recounts Kennedy’s flirtation with running in 1968, 1972, and 1976, but he fails to prove his point. (In regard to the 1976 campaign, he fails to mention that Kennedy was up for reelection to the U.S. Senate that year and that an unsuccessful run for the Presidency would have ended Ted’s political career, at least for the time being).
David does a somewhat-better job of covering Ted’s abysmal 1980 attempt to capture the Democratic nomination, but the account is still too short. Also, he fails to mentions Ted’s much-praised “the dream shall never die” speech at the 1980 Democratic convention.
With all that has been written and said about the Kennedy family, it’s difficult give Good Ted, Bad Ted a strong recommendation. To me, Leo Damore’s Senatorial Privilege (about Chappaquiddick) was more compelling. However, taken on its own, Good Ted, Bad Ted is still pretty good. It’s entertaining and provides a nice overview of the many highs and lows of Ted Kennedy’s life through the early 1990s.