Ted Kennedy bio leaves fans wanting more

The latest biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy — Edward Klein’s Ted Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died — is not nearly the first book on the famed senator. Nor the deepest. Nor the best. And given the family’s popularity, it’s not likely to be the last.

And that could be fortunate, because even though Klein’s book comes after Kennedy’s 2008 cancer diagnosis and takes a brave stance by focusing on the senator’s late-in-life renaissance after his 1992 marriage, it stops short of where others may venture.

What’s more, it suffers from the poor timing of coming just months before Kennedy sends his own words out to the world.

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The last son of Rose and Joseph Fitzgerald Kennedy is already the subject of several biographies — most notably The New York Times’s Adam Clymer’s own excellent assessment — but timing is critical here, given the arc of Kennedy’s life, his renaissance and his 2008 diagnosis.

The chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is still missing from Congress’s upper chamber, although his presence haunts the hallways as his committee debates healthcare reform. It remains uncertain when the senator will return to the Senate to vote on the bill to which he has devoted decades of his life.

Klein’s 254-page biography is notably slim for a book on the country’s most well-known senator. And that’s telling: The book is slim on research, slim on reporting and heavy on footnotes (including citations for this newspaper). The book hits the highlights, but rarely digs deep into the marrow.

To be fair, Klein uses Kennedy’s own words to explain the fact that the book is bereft of such careful examination: Kennedy won’t allow the world inside him. “Although Ted Kennedy has uttered hundreds of thousands of words during a career that has spanned nearly half a century,” Klein writes in a postscript, “he has never spoken candidly about matters close to his heart.”

Notably, Klein makes the case that the Ted Kennedy of 2009 is far different from the Ted Kennedy of 1991. By then, the senator’s life had become a dissolute shambles, but Klein sees a changed man starting with Kennedy’s 1992 marriage to lawyer Victoria Reggie.

Watching the pair at a dinner party in 1991 and interviewing anonymous family sources in the years since, Klein paints a picture of Reggie as something close to Kennedy’s savior, taking on tasks from editing his speeches and encouraging his 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama to blocking photographers from snapping pictures of the senator with a drink and steering waiters away from re-filling his wine glass at public dinners.

A well-known New York writer, Klein states he was struck by the change in Kennedy in the 20 years since meeting him on Cape Cod’s Monhegan Island in 1970, shortly after the Chappaquiddick incident: “Ted Kennedy’s metamorphosis was hardly ever scrutinized in the thousands of words that have been written about him,” Klein writes. “He was, I concluded, the least understood and the most underappreciated Kennedy of them all.”

Yet it’s been done before, and better. With a dearth of research and original reporting, Klein seems content to coast on anonymous sources and a just-the-headlines approach to Kennedy’s post-Chappaquiddick career. Too many senators are all too willing to talk about Kennedy’s Senate career in person, yet Klein seems to have done his work from a distance. Since Kennedy’s mortality is an undeniable factor — the senator is battling a malignant glioma — the book’s superficiality is all the more suspect.

The last word on Kennedy’s life may be his own. Based on a journal that spans 50 years and personal interviews that lasted five years, Kennedy’s autobiography, True Compass, is scheduled to be published by Twelve Books on Oct. 6.

The autobiography is based on a personal journal that Kennedy began keeping in 1960, at the start of his brother’s presidential campaign. The book includes remembrances of John and Robert Kennedy, Kennedy’s Senate career and his thoughts on noteworthy events in history.

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The book includes “moving” remembrances of his brothers, according to Twelve, plus other sensitive topics such as his marriage to Reggie, his role in landmark legislative struggles such as civil rights, Obama’s 2008 election and “how his recent diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor has given even greater urgency to his long crusade for improved healthcare for all Americans.”

Specifically, the book is based on oral history interviews Kennedy began giving five years ago to the Miller Center, a presidential research project at the University of Virginia.

In an open letter on the publisher’s website, Twelve Books publisher Jonathan Karp calls the book “dazzling — a candid, heartfelt and beautifully written account of an extraordinary life.”