BOOK REVIEW / Tuning in with America's Teddy addicts: The last brother - Joe McGinniss: Little Brown, pounds 18.99

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THE LIFE and troubled times of Teddy Kennedy is the stuff of which legend, tragedy or, at least, soap opera is made. Born the runt of the Kennedy litter, he clowned and cheated, boozed and bribed his way through a disregarded childhood. Jack was President, and Bobby Attorney General, when Ted was bought a seat in the Senate by his grotesquely domineering father. It was 1962, and Teddy was just 30 years old.

Within a year he had seen his beloved brother gunned down. Their father collapsed into a catatonic state from which he never emerged. Then Teddy was involved in a plane crash in which he broke his back. He was paralysed for six months. In 1968 came the shooting of Bobby.

Suddenly Teddy was, as the veteran political journalist Joe McGinniss puts it, 'the last actor left on a stage littered with dead bodies'. In their anguish, a distraught Democratic Party and a divided America offered him the lot. He could have taken the presidential nomination at the Chicago convention a few months later, without the help of his father's millions or the Kennedy political machine.

'It was,' according to McGinniss, 'becoming the rarest of all American political phenomena: a spontaneous, uninstigated, grassroots draft movment.' Teddy thrust the crown away. What was clear after Chicago was that the presidency remained Teddy's for the taking, in 1972, 1976 or even 1980, when he would still be only 48.

Then, in the spring of 1969, came Chappaquiddick. In a sparsely inhabited holiday island off Martha's Vineyard in New England, the Last Brother and his cronies held a boozy weekend party with assorted women who had worked in his political office. Late at night, Teddy was supposedly driving one of them back to her motel when his massive Oldsmobile went off a narrow bridge and into the water. Mary Jo Kopechne drowned. Teddy vanished for several hours before turning up in nearby Edgartown to give an unconvincing statement to the obsequious chief of police.

An army of Kennedy lawyers, PR men and advisers - more, according to the New York Times, than his brother had used to deal with the Cuban missile crisis - went into action. Teddy retreated into the family compound at Hyannis Port, emerging only to plea-bargain a two-month prison sentence (suspended) for leaving the scene of a crime after 'knowingly causing injury'.

Live on all three national television channels, Teddy delivered himself of a mawkish, Nixonian speech in the course of which he speculated about 'whether some awful curse actually did hang over all the Kennedys'. (It takes an effort to remember that it was Mary who drowned; Teddy just got wet.) From then on, to America's credit, Teddy was unelectable as anything but Senator.

Mr McGinniss, not satisfied with this gripping if melodramatic story, has turned it into faction. He boasts of making up quotations, and imputes moods and motives 'from what I have inferred to be his (Teddy's) point of view'. The author speculates that after the shooting of the President, Teddy was tempted to kill himself by swimming out into the mists of Nantucket Bay until exhausted - 'not,' adds McGinness, 'that there is any evidence he considered this'.

McGinniss speculates that old Joe Kennedy had his daughter Rosemary - Ted's sister - lobotomised because Joe had sexually abused her as a child and she was threatening to tell. He wonders whether Ted married his wife, Joan, because he had impregnated her, and deals with the biological difficulty that no child was forthcoming within the next nine months with the thought that Joan was to prove prone to miscarriages.

Such unnecessary silliness turns real tragedy into the stuff of soap. More important, it calls into question even the most straightforward assertions in the book. As if the truth weren't strange enough.