The trouble with Teddy: The Kennedy who has seen it all

After 50 years on America's centre stage, the most notorious of the Kennedys is to spill the beans on his life in what promises to be an explosive memoir. David Usborne looks forward to a publishing sensation
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The Independent US

He was born into immense privilege with a last name that would for ever guarantee him a place on the pantheon of American politics. Yet the burdens of Edward Moore Kennedy have been many.

The cruel currents of history swept away two of his brothers, both slain in the turbulent Sixties by assassins. Whether he liked it or not, Teddy from a young age was forced to grasp the family torch.

The youthfulness that seemed to define the political ambitions of his two buried brothers, John Fitzgerald and Bobby, long ago vanished from the face of Teddy. At 75, you can almost trace the decades of adversity in his grizzled, jowly face. They are features that bear testimony to a failed presidential run, years of drinking too much and womanising and the seemingly endless fusillade of tragedy and scandal.

What will it be this week? Do a quick Google search and you will find it: a woman on Cape Cod filing a defamation lawsuit against the American supermarket tabloid, the National Enquirer, for alleging last year that her son, now 22, was fathered by the senator from Massachusetts and is the progeny of an illicit affair.

Poor, battered Ted: he is to lurid headlines what lightbulbs are to a moth.

No one, as it happens, is paying much attention to this particular story and not just because few people believe anything that appears in the Enquirer. Nor is it that we are sated with tales of shockingly errant behaviour from the Kennedy clan. (Because, Lord knows, they have been numerous, involving every possible sin from rape to murder and, most famously, Teddy's own encounter with disgrace in the waters of a certain Chappaquiddick creek.) No, we didn't notice this one because it was eclipsed by other news.

As the surviving patriarch of the closest approximation in America to a royal family, Kennedy was one day always going to have to commit the epic details of his life and of those of his brothers and other assorted relatives to the pages of an autobiography. It was never a question of whether, but when.

Even so, the revelation last week that a book deal has indeed now been done caused no little stir. You might think we have all had quite enough of the triumphs and tragedies of the Camelot clan.

We have watched biopics on the big screen and clich-ridden TV movies on the small. Recent books about Teddy himself have included an authorised biography by Adam Clymer and a few years earlier, in 1993, the meticulously researched The Last Brother penned by Joe McGinniss. Do we really need more?

This, though, is far different, because it will become from the horse's mouth. No sooner was the existence of a book deal made public than the pastures of speculation were set ablaze.

Will the book be a tell-all, no-holds-barred expose of every high and low in an extraordinary life or will it, instead, be just another tedious tome written not so much in honesty but in search of self-aggrandisement?

Oh yes, and the money. According to reports and neither side has been willing to spell out the pecuniary paragraphs of the contract Kennedy will be paid in the region of $8m to deliver this work title unknown in time to stuff very large stockings three years from now in 2010.

That is a lot of dough for a book the actual contents of which can still only be guessed at. Someone somewhere must have a lot of confidence in Kennedy not just to remember all that has befallen him, but that he really is willing to share it fully.

They would be the people at Twelve books, a recently created imprint in the US that is part of the Hachette publishing empire. They were one of no fewer than nine publishing houses that earlier this month participated in a six-day auction for the rights to the book. A minimum bid of $2m was required to enter the competition. That they ended up promising to pay four times that amount does not seem to phase them. "The senator's book is not about the money," said Jonathan Karp, the founder of Twelve. "It's about telling a story that only he can tell. He's both seen history and he's made history. His perspective is unique, and it would be a tremendous loss if he did not put his experiences in writing".

The senator, he went on, "intends to be candid".

For his own part, Kennedy is so far not giving too much away about what he intends to put down in print. "I've been fortunate in my life to grow up in an extraordinary family and to have a front-row seat at many key events in our nation's history," he said in a brief statement.

"I hope my reflections can contribute to a deeper understanding of many events in the history of this great country and to a more in-depth picture of an American family."

All well and good, Mr Kennedy. And no one is taking away from your record of an astonishing 45 years in the Senate. His indeed is a long list of achievements on Capitol Hill as its greatest champion of liberal causes. We can indeed hope that he will offer new perspectives on crucial periods in recent American history spanning the civil rights struggle, the closing down of the Vietnam War to the failed presidential candidacy, actively backed by Kennedy, of his fellow Massachusetts senator John Kerry. He has furthered gay rights and opposed the Iraq War and continues to criticise Guantanamo Bay.

It is no wonder, in fact, that last year, Time magazine included Kennedy in its list of America's ten best senators, saying he had, "massed a titanic record of legislation affecting the lives of virtually every man, woman and child in the country".

But, let's be honest Mr Kennedy, it is not so much the American family we want to read about when we buy your book, but yours. Yours was a front-row seat on the drama of Camelot. Indeed, when you weren't in the stalls, you were playing the lead. Give us the inside scoop. And don't forget to include a detailed index so we can flip to the pages with the juicy bits.

You can guess at the headings now: Chappaquiddick, failed presidential bid, William Kennedy Smith rape case, Skakel murder case, Harvard expulsion and of course assassination 1963 and assassination 1968.

The Harvard episode is an early clue to a certain waywardness in Kennedy, the youngest of nine children born to the manically demanding Joseph Kennedy of Hyannis and his wife Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was chucked out for cheating on an exam an ethics exam, no less.

Yet, as throughout his life, Kennedy always knew that every disgrace, every disappointment, had to be corrected. Thus, after a spell in the US Army, he was readmitted and did eventually graduate. Letting down his family and especially his father was never an option. In 1962, Kennedy won a special election to the US Senate at the age of 30, where he has remained ever since.

It might have been a career in the shadows of his two elder siblings, John and Robert, but for their early deaths. According to the McGinniss account, it was the shooting of Robert at a campaign event in California in 1968 that affected Kennedy more deeply. The greatness of both brothers was thus landed upon the shoulders of Ted. Yet his own script was to make serial, unexpected swerves.

In 1964, he barely survived a plane crash that killed both the pilot and one of his assistants.

Then, in 1969, came an event that has arguably marred the rest of his life to this day. Driving across a bridge from the tiny isle of Chappaquiddick to the larger island of Martha's Vineyard, Kennedy lost control and the car plunged into the water. While he swam to shore, his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who had worked on Robert's presidential campaign the previous year, drowned. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended jail sentence.

If friends and supporters urged Kennedy through the 1970s to pick up from his two brothers and run for the White House, he himself demurred largely because of the shadow of Chappaquiddick. In 1980, he finally accepted, daring to challenge the incumbent President and Democratic Party leader, Jimmy Carter.

After a promising start, the Kennedy campaign spluttered quickly opponents repeatedly reminded voters of Chappaquiddick by playing Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge over Troubled Waters" at rallies and Mr Carter, not he, won the nomination. In the end, it was Ronald Reagan, the architect of subsequent years of conservative government, who triumphed.

Who knows which headline writer first came up with the "Kennedy Curse", but Teddy would be the last to argue with the sentiment. The tragedies and scandals have never really let up.

He has suffered through the deaths of John F Kennedy Jnr in a plane crash in Martha's Vineyard and of Michael, son of Bobby, on the ski slopes of Colorado. In a period when his own drinking habits were fodder for the headlines, he found himself embroiled in rape allegations directed against his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, in Florida. (Smith was finally acquitted.)

From afar, he has even witnessed the conviction of William Skakel, another Kennedy nephew, for the murder in Greenwich, Connecticut, three decades ago of a young girl, Martha Moxley.

Back in 1962, when he ran for election in Massachusetts for the first time, the primary opponent, Edward McCormack, used to taunt Kennedy that he was living off his family name. "If your name was simply Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a joke," he once cried.

Nor would we be waiting now to buy a memoir by an Edward Moore. But one by Edward Kennedy we surely will. Who else could have material so rich, both in recalling half a century of political life and just as many years of turbulence and grief in his personal life. Which is why the $8m paid for it, astonishing though it may seem, may turn out to be one of the best investments in publishing history.