Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy
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Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy

by Peter S. Canellos

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Peter S. Canellos and his team of Boston Globe reporters magnificently capture the life, historic achievements and personal redemption of Ted Kennedy

No figure in American public life has had such great expectations thrust upon him, or has responded so poorly. At the age of 36, Ted Kennedy found himself the last brother, the champion


Peter S. Canellos and his team of Boston Globe reporters magnificently capture the life, historic achievements and personal redemption of Ted Kennedy

No figure in American public life has had such great expectations thrust upon him, or has responded so poorly. At the age of 36, Ted Kennedy found himself the last brother, the champion of a generation's dreams and ambitions. He would be expected to give the nation the confidence to confront its problems and to build a fairer society, at home and abroad.

He quickly failed in spectacular fashion. On the basis of his family name he was elected to the U.S. Senate while barely old enough to serve. Then, late one night in the summer of 1969, he left the scene of a fatal automobile accident in Chappaquiddick Island. The death there of a young woman would haunt and ultimately doom his presidential ambitions. Republicans turned his all-too-human failings — drinking, divorce, and philandering — into a condemnation of his liberal politics.

But as the presidency eluded his grasp, Kennedy was finally liberated from the expectations of others and transformed himself into a symbol of wisdom and perseverance. He built a deeply loving marriage with his second wife, Vicki Reggie. He embraced his role as the family patriarch. And as his health failed, he anointed presidential candidate Barack Obama, whom many commentators compared to his brother Jack. The Kennedy brand of liberalism was rediscovered by a new generation of Americans.

Drawing heavily from candid interviews with the Kennedy family and inner circle, Last Lion captures magnificently the life and historic achievements of Ted Kennedy.

Editorial Reviews

Chris Cillizza
…an insightful biography
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

This biography delves deeply into Senator Kennedy's nearly half-century legislative career-but it's the personal dramas that prove the most enthralling; tracks are organized such that listeners bored by the politics can click ahead for a quit exit back to Hyannisport, Georgetown, Palm Beach or Chappaquiddick. Skipp Sudduth imbues his narration with feeling, recounting the numerous tragedies (the death of all three of Kennedy's brothers, his son's cancer and subsequent leg amputation, his nephew JFK Jr.'s fatal plane crash and now his own brain tumor) with quiet dignity. Despite the countless trials, this is anything but depressing listening; the resilience and indomitable optimism of the subject himself is well-conveyed by this enjoyable recording. A Simon & Schuster hardcover. (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Canellos and his team of Boston Globe reporters begin this insightful and informative biography of Ted Kennedy with the 2008 news of his malignant tumor, then chronicle his childhood, relating anecdotes and discussing his good humor, generosity, trials and tribulations, ambitions, many tragedies, and more. The reporting draws from candid interviews with the Kennedys and their inner circle. One of the book's most interesting components is its description of Kennedy's relationship with his wife, Victoria Reggie. Actor/musician/narrator Skipp Sudduth (Just After Sunset) engagingly relays both the personal and professional milestones of the senator's life; strongly recommended. [Audio clip available through; the S. & S. hc, published in February, was a New York Times best seller.-Ed.]
—Carol Stern

Kirkus Reviews
A respectful but not stuffy portrait of Edward Kennedy, the playboy of legendary appetites turned senior statesman. Upon learning last spring that Kennedy had been stricken with cancer, John McCain lauded him as "the last lion of the Senate," adding that "he remains the single most effective member of the Senate if you want to get results." By this account, assembled by Canellos and a team of seasoned reporters from the Boston Globe, McCain's encomium seems right on the mark. Kennedy has been notable in pushing through a wide variety of laws and programs, particularly ones that concern health, education and workers' rights. It was not always that way. The writers portray the early Kennedy-the last of four brothers and nine children, and often the target of withering criticism-as just shy of being a wastrel, ejected from Harvard for cheating on a Spanish exam and fond of the night life. A stint as an enlisted man in the Army-during which his father pulled strings to keep him from the battle lines in Korea-helped turn him around, but he still got arrested for reckless driving even as he was preparing to serve as his brother Jack's campaign manager. Thrust into the family trade, Kennedy "walloped his Republican opponent, grabbing three-quarters of the vote" in the 1964 Senate race, and he slowly began to build a resume as a serious, studious politician-a reputation blunted but not squashed by scandals such as Chappaquiddick. Most striking about this sturdy account is Kennedy's well-practiced habit of crossing the aisle to disarm his Republican opponents with a combination of charm and arm-twisting. One unlikely ally was Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who came to Congress with a specific agendaof fighting Kennedy on every front. Another was President George W. Bush, whom Kennedy aided in pushing through the No Child Left Behind legislation-though he later "blamed Bush for reneging on his side of the bargain."A balanced, nuanced, warts-and-all portrait. Author tour to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, D.C.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
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6.50(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt


At 8:19 a.m. on Saturday, May 17, 2008, the dispatcher at the Hyannis Fire Department received a call that generations of rescue workers had anticipated with a mixture of fear and excitement: An emergency at 50 Marchant Avenue. Seemingly everyone in the department knew that address by heart. The Kennedy compound.

The village fire and rescue unit had answered calls at the compound, a sprawling collection of New England-style clapboard homes, many times before. Medics had treated members of the Kennedy clan for broken bones and cut legs after accidents on the beach or the touch-football field. Like everyone else in Hyannis Port, the rescuers recalled their encounters with the Kennedys with both pride and discretion. The family had been through so much, and their hurts — both physical and political — had been felt in Hyannis Port, as well. The Kennedys were protected here.

But it soon became clear to the ten firefighters on duty that Saturday, as they listened to the 911 call being broadcast through the station house, that this was going to be more than a sporting injury. A woman's voice explained to the dispatcher that Ted Kennedy himself, the family patriarch, had fallen ill at the home that once belonged to his parents.

Arriving at the house, the ambulance pulled up beside a billowing tent that had been set up for a reception scheduled for later that day honoring people involved in a charity bike race, hosted by Ted's nephew Anthony Shriver. Uncle Teddy, as he was known to dozens of his nieces and nephews and their progeny, was always eager to help the younger Kennedys with their civic efforts. He saw these good deeds aspart of the family's legacy, and himself as the essential caretaker of that legacy.

He had exhorted his own kids, and the many for whom he functioned as a second father, to carry on the tradition of service established by his famous brothers Jack and Bobby, as well as the ritual caretaking that went with it. Even if, in truth, Jack and Bobby had done relatively little hand-to-hand greeting of everyday constituents — and neither particularly enjoyed it — the gregarious Ted had spent forty years hosting and attending charity events, shaking hundreds of thousands of hands and relating the same anecdotes about his fabled Hyannis Port home: these are the stairs down which young Jack would run to the beach; there is the window of Mother's room.

Over time, as the number of people who actually knew Jack and Bobby dwindled, the brothers lived on in Ted's retelling of their lives, and their actual personalities and concerns became almost indistinguishable from his. And while Ted insisted that all the good deeds that people associated with the Kennedys were generated by his brothers and his parents, Joe Sr. and Rose, and that he was merely the custodian of their memories, people lately had begun to think otherwise. Ted, the often discredited, seemingly unworthy younger brother, was shaping Jack's and Bobby's legacies as much as they were shaping his.

When the ambulance arrived at Cape Cod Hospital, just three miles from the compound on the other side of picturesque Lewis Bay, Ted was unconscious. Doctors realized that the 76-year-old senator had had some sort of seizure. His wife, Vicki, his inseparable partner of sixteen years, arrived moments later in a car driven by Hyannis Fire Chief Harold Brunelle, a family friend who had rushed to the compound when he heard about the 911 call.

Chief Brunelle and Vicki found Ted in worse shape than he was when he left the house just minutes before. His morning had begun like so many others. He had used a tennis racket to hit balls to his and Vicki's two Portuguese water dogs, Splash and Sunny. Ted and Vicki took the giant dogs everywhere, from his Senate office to George W. Bush's White House, like the surrogate children of a dream second marriage that neither of them had expected, and that many people had doubted Ted was capable of having. But the surprising fact was that Ted Kennedy, who had once earned the most randy of reputations, had long ago settled down to a cozy domesticity. Splash and Sunny were only the most obvious representations of it.

After playing with the dogs, Ted proceeded with his morning routine, preparing his coffee and orange juice. Just as he was about to sit at his dining room table to read the morning papers, he started to falter. He felt ill and sat down immediately to avoid falling. It was his first seizure. The ambulance arrived five minutes later. But while en route to the hospital Ted suffered a second seizure and lost consciousness entirely.

The emergency team at Cape Cod Hospital rushed to resuscitate him, while neurologists tried to determine what caused the attack. A stroke was the obvious suspect, but initial tests were inconclusive. After less than two hours, the doctors determined that Ted was strong enough to make the trip to Boston, where the more powerful scanners at Massachusetts General Hospital could probe deeper into the senator's brain in hopes of finding the cause of his seizures.

The ambulance drove him another three minutes to Barnstable Municipal Airport — the 600-acre airfield which the Navy used to train torpedo bomber pilots during World War II and where Ted himself had landed thousands of times, always returning home to Hyannis Port. This, too, was the airport at which his nephew John F. Kennedy Jr. had been expected to arrive on his final plane trip in 1999, a tragedy that still reverberated through the family.

In the four decades since Bobby's death, when Ted became the head of the Kennedy family, he had spent thousands of hours attending joyous celebrations like christenings, weddings, and graduations — and an equal amount of time comforting relatives stricken with cancer, beset by accidents, or suffering the loss of loved ones. He had become so associated with those moments of grief that he grew into a living symbol of perseverance amid loss, as famous for his aching eulogies as for his dream-shall-never-die political exhortations. The death of John F. Kennedy Jr. — John-John, the child of Camelot — was, in many ways, the most painful of them all, the extinguishing of a flame that had been lit at Arlington National Cemetery on a cold November day in 1963.

Now, it was Ted himself being carried by stretcher onto a MedFlight helicopter for the 65-mile trek to Mass. General. It was a gray, wet morning that did not yet hint of warm summer to come, as the helicopter rose above the sea where Ted had spent countless hours on his distinctive 1940s-vintage schooner, the Mya.

As the helicopter arced over Plymouth, en route to Boston, phones began ringing in the homes of Kennedy relatives in Massachusetts and around the country, part of an elaborate system that family members had devised to notify each other in the event of yet another crisis. As the word fanned out, those closest to Kennedy quickly began converging on the hospital. His younger son, Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, the only other family member still in elective office, got the call in Washington and flew to Boston immediately. His elder son, Teddy Jr., who had lost a leg to cancer as a child and became an activist for people with disabilities, was with his family in Connecticut. His daughter, Kara, also a cancer survivor, was with her family in Maryland. Caroline Kennedy, the niece who had become exceedingly close to her Uncle Teddy after the deaths of her parents and brother, rushed to the hospital immediately from her secluded second home outside New York City.

While the family gathered in a private room, waiting for the initial round of test results, word began to trickle out to the much larger family that had grown up around Ted, the vast network of thousands of former staff members and loyalists reaching all the way to the Supreme Court, where his former Judiciary Committee aide Stephen Breyer was a stalwart of the court's liberal wing.

The news of Kennedy's illness also spread throughout the Senate, where Ted was widely considered the body's most popular member, beloved by Democrats and Republicans alike — despite being a target for derision in many conservative parts of the country. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, risked the ire of conservatives by describing Ted as a friend and later calling him "the last lion" of the Senate. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who had entered politics specifically to take on Ted Kennedy but gone on to become one of Kennedy's intimates, was heartsick at the news. So was Christopher Dodd, the Connecticut senator who was also born into a large Irish Catholic political family and had become Ted's daily companion when both were living the bachelor life in the 1980s and early 1990s. And there was John Kerry, for twenty-four years Kennedy's junior colleague from Massachusetts, who had grown closer after Ted worked tirelessly to help Kerry secure their party's presidential nomination in 2004. Perhaps most of all there was Barack Obama, the freshman colleague from Illinois whom Kennedy had personally anointed as keeper of the Camelot flame. Ted had logged tens of thousands of miles exhorting Democrats to vote for Obama, and may have given the untested Obama just enough credibility to get over the hump to the nomination.

Obama was campaigning in Oregon when he got the news and his first reaction, in the glow of his own amazing rise, was to express the kind of upbeat sanguinity that has repeatedly buoyed him politically. "Ted Kennedy is a giant in American political history — he has done more for the health care of others than just about anybody in history and so we are going to be rooting for him and I insist on being optimistic about how it's going to turn out," Obama told reporters.

Meanwhile, at the Kennedy compound, the celebration of the Best Buddies bike race went on, with donors, volunteers, and celebrities, including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, filling the tent. Anthony Shriver, hosting the event on his uncle's lawn, declared, "One thing you can say about the Kennedys is that we're warriors." He added later that day, "I'm 100 percent confident that he'll be fine."

* * *

Only three days later, the doctors issued a simple statement announcing the devastating diagnosis: Kennedy had a brain tumor, a malignant mass located in his left parietal lobe, the area of the brain that controls movement on the left side of the body and helps form speech. The news, reverberating among the general public for whom Ted Kennedy had been a fixed point, for good or bad, for decades, set off a surprising reaction: People began to look again at Kennedy as a man, and as a leader of unusual accomplishment.

Mass. General itself, like many other world-class hospitals in Boston and elsewhere around the country, is an unrevealed monument to Ted Kennedy's influence: it was he who quadrupled federal spending on cancer research back in the early 1970s, he who secured the funds for generations of scientists through the National Institutes of Health, and he who relentlessly expanded the federal role in paying for the health care of children, the poor, and the elderly. The dramatic infusions of cash had transformed health care in America, enabling research centers like Mass. General to devise new treatments for the deadliest of diseases.

Without Ted's efforts to boost funding through NIH, Medicare, and many other programs, Mass. General as it is now known would not exist. Nor would the great research hospitals lining Boston's Longwood Avenue. Nor would the outstanding hospitals in other parts of the country, like Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina. Political leaders and historians had long acknowledged Ted's eminent role in expanding health-care treatments, but everyday citizens often failed to make the connection between Ted's health care policies and the great institutions they funded.

Now, facing his own battle, Ted would eventually make a surprising choice, bypassing Mass. General to have surgery performed by the famed neurosurgeon Allan Friedman at Duke, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. As in many decisions, he was guided by memories of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., who always believed in seeking out the most advanced researchers, wherever he could find them. As in so many other ways, the political and the personal were interwoven into Ted's fight for his life.

Indeed, as he walked out of Mass. General after receiving his diagnosis, with Vicki and his extended family around him, he was a picture of enthusiasm. He was going home.

As the SUV carrying the senator and his wife made the familiar drive down Route 3, over the Sagamore Bridge, and across the Cape on Route 6, friends and constituents arranged themselves on the quiet streets surrounding the Kennedy compound. The people were there to wish their neighbor well, to show their faith in him. Now, in his eighth decade, he had become someone he had never been before: someone you could count on.

It wasn't always so. It wasn't true when he was growing up, when his own father — who loved him dearly — expressed doubts about his intelligence. It wasn't true when he first ran for the Senate, when his own brothers thought he was taking on too much too soon. It wasn't true when tens of millions of voters looked to him as the only possible antidote to the pain of the 1960s, making him the focus of their dream of restoration of Jack's unfulfilled presidency, and he fell short of the task.

It was, some believe, his very failings that were his secret motivation, that made him — the senator with the least need to work hard — drive himself harder than any of his colleagues. But he never explained himself. He always let Jack and Bobby and Joe Sr. and Rose do the explaining. He was driven, he said, to live up to their example. He knew, even as he gazed out at the friends cheering his return to Hyannis Port, and at the supportive wife by his side, that there were other, darker memories in that big old clapboard house. It was there, in 1969, that he had walked into the bedroom of his 81-year-old father, lying nearly immobile and withering away under the effects of a devastating stroke, and said, "Dad, I'm in some trouble. There's been an accident, and you're going to hear all sorts of things about me from now on. Terrible things...."

And friends could only wonder if he knew then that he would spend his life searching for redemption.

Copyright © 2009 by The Boston Globe


Meet the Author

Peter Canellos is the Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe and oversees all national coverage for the paper, where he has worked since 1988 covering local, state, and national politics.

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