Peter Pringle's America: The virtual biography of Teddy Kennedy

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AS IF it weren't enough to have television turn genuine crimes into soap operas, and high-tech goggles provide heart-stopping new worlds of entertainment so that we can't figure out what's real and what isn't, an established American author, a one-time honoured fact-gatherer, has produced a 'virtual reality' biography.

Joe McGinnis's book on Teddy Kennedy - The Last Brother - is, the critics charge, a terrible, unprofessional book that plays fast and loose with the truth. 'Steeped in Slime,' said the Washington Post headline. 'By a wide margin the worst book I have reviewed in three decades,' said the same newspaper's critic, adding: 'Quite simply there isn't an honest page in it.' Time magazine called it 'a bazaar of banalities', which was faint praise by comparison.

Normally, such a book would not have got so much attention, but the publisher's high-frequency advanced notices, suggesting a new literary genre, trapped the critics into long, debunking articles. Only time will tell whether this makes people buy the book, or sinks it - as I hope it does. In the meantime, one can only marvel at the severity of the critics' attacks and the equally spirited defence by an author who should know better.

Mr McGinnis, a former columnist on the Philadelphia Inquirer, is best known for his insightful reporting, and his book, on the 1968 presidential election. The central complaint against him in The Last Brother is that he claims to have written a biography but has not complied with any of the norms of biographical writing.

He has put thoughts into Teddy Kennedy's head that he admits might or might not have been there; he did not interview any of the family for the book; he says he talked to lots of friends and acquaintances, but never names them; and he has no notes on sources, nor an index.

Mr McGinnis is even accused of plagiarising from the shelves of previous Kennedy books, among them the 1967 classic Death of a President, by William Manchester, who is threatening to sue.

Rather than a biography, it is a 'virtual biography' - a 'bookodrama', in the manner of television 'docudramas', the critics cry in unison. It is, they declare, a hateful symbol of a new, disturbing age of literature and communication in which creativity and originality are all but lost, and the line between fact and fiction so blurred as to be indistinguishable. Swamped with computerised information banks, authors will never produce an individually created work of non-fiction again.

Remarkably, throughout this withering offensive, Mr McGinnis stands firm, insisting that his book is a biography - just a slightly unorthodox one of the kind required to penetrate the 'mythic persona' of the Kennedys. Like the royal family, he wants us to believe, the Kennedys are 'so different from you and me' and so 'encrusted with fable and lore, a writer must attempt an approach that transcends that of traditional journalism or even, perhaps, of conventional biography'.

Far from exploding the myth, however, the result is to perpetuate it and add another layer of fable - under which category the publisher might have had the decency to bring out the book if the lawyers had not provided cover. Disclaimers are sprinkled about.

After Jack Kennedy's assassination, Teddy is on the beach at Cape Cod walking with the family. 'Suppose - not that there is any evidence he considered this - he suddenly just veered left, away from his sister, and plunged, fully clothed, into the roiling frigid waters of Nantucket Bay?' writes McGinnis, suggesting that Teddy might have been suicidal.

The author doesn't know if such a thought was ever entertained, he simply makes it up, implying a character flaw in his subject, and then, for good measure, gives his own imagination legal protection - 'not that there is any evidence he considered this'.

Mercifully, to judge this book one does not have to read the 651 pages, only the five- page Author's Note, hastily added to cope with critics, and which should have been titled Lawyer's Note. 'The events described herein took place as described, to the best of

my knowledge,' writes Mr McGinnis. 'The quotations attributed to people throughout the book respresent in substance what I believe to have been spoken . . . and I have quite consciously written portions as if from inside his (Teddy's) mind.'

In other words: 'Trust me, folks, I figured out what he was thinking even though I never asked him.'

Mr McGinnis contends that he didn't have to ask; if you look around, he says, there are other fine biographers who have made up thoughts and feelings which have served nicely to bring portraits alive. Take Simon Schama's history of the French Revolution, Citizens, or W Jackson Bate's biography of Samuel Johnson. These authors had people saying and feeling things and they never interviewed the principals and sometimes omitted notes or references, didn't they?

Sure they did, Mr McGinnis, but the principals had been dead for several hundred years. Teddy Kennedy has a living brain.

On the run from the critics, Mr McGinnis hides behind any flimsy bush he can find and is left hopelessly exposed. In desperation he invokes Freud: 'Whoever turns biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishments, and even to disembling his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had, and even if one had it, one could not use it.'

But why not risk it? Mr McGinnis asks. 'I'm deliberately taking risks . . . I'm fascinated how far I can push the edges of the envelope,' he says, consciously or not borrowing a concept from another volume that has a bearing here: Tom Wolfe's book about the astronauts, The Right Stuff. Unlike Mr McGinnis, Wolfe and others, such as Truman Capote, faced with the task of unravelling strange and unusual lives, and complicated motives, went out into the world, knocked on doors they could label, saw people they could name, and painstakingly gathered mountains of incontrovertible facts before attempting their narratives.

The 'envelope' of the astronauts was the imaginary or unknown boundary of speed and height and thrust beyond which things got hairy, and there was no knowing whether their pioneering machines would stand it.

Mr McGinnis contends that he is a pioneer, stretching the edges of the literary envelope. Experiment is to be praised, but - trying to get inside this author's brain - I would say he burst through the envelope and found it was a very bad idea. The best thing he could do is to admit the failure and move on.