Liberalism is under assault. Already having suffered decades of reputational damage after Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan battered the word into oblivion, it is now rare to ever hear it with a positive connotation. The right wing continues to equate it with moral decadence and fiscal recklessness, while the hard left of the Democratic Socialists of America variety blames liberalism for everything from the ascendance of Donald Trump to extreme income inequality.
The historically illiterate hatred of liberalism not only eliminates serious consideration of right-wing machinations and propaganda from political analysis, but also requires obliviousness to the achievements of democratic liberalism. Loosely defined, that’s the representative form of government, operating within a free market, that prioritizes individual liberties, protects minority rights, and marshals public goods and services in an attempt to cure, or at least mitigate, social ills. Beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, moving through the turbulence of the 1960s and ’70s, and extending all the way through the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama years, liberals gave the United States civil rights and gay rights; the fuller inclusion of women in political, economic, and cultural institutions; and a social welfare state that, although inadequate compared to its European counterparts, significantly reduces poverty and softens its effects.
At precisely the moment when liberalism is facing criticism from the socialist left and under vicious attack from the fascist right, there are two new biographies of one of its leading tribunes: Edward M. Kennedy. In the first book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and biographer John A. Farrell turns his discerning eye toward Kennedy after gaining access to his diaries and personal papers. In Ted Kennedy: A Life, his approach to recalling the familiar triumphs and failures of Kennedy, from the myriad accomplishments of his legislative career to the catastrophe of Chappaquiddick, is Hemingwayesque. Writing in a minimalist style, Farrell largely leaves it to the reader to draw a conclusion about the meaning of Kennedy’s colorful life.
Farrell’s sources are second to none, and he demonstrates his characteristic knack for establishing a strong story arc. Yet the straightforward journalistic tone and presentation has its flaws. Rather than couch Ted Kennedy’s victories and defeats in a depiction of America’s transformation from John F. Kennedy’s social welfare policies of the “New Frontier” to Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, Farrell is content to write about Kennedy’s life as if he were a protagonist in a novel. While his portrait is, generally, sympathetic, it feels too coldly withdrawn from the high stakes of Kennedy’s nearly 50 years as a leader of the Democratic Party. It also suffers from a few odd choices. For example, Farrell scrutinizes in painstaking detail when Kennedy cheated on exams at Harvard and was expelled, but dispenses with Kennedy’s reaction to JFK’s assassination in only a couple of pages.
Despite this, Farrell manages to surprise the reader with new revelations. According to diary entries he uncovered, Ted Kennedy received personal assurances from Samuel Alito that he would not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade if he were on the Supreme Court. Unprecedented access to Kennedy’s papers enables Farrell to demonstrate exactly how much the Kennedy inner circle worried about the potential for violence and authoritarianism in right-wing politics—revelations that are quite forceful in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection and in an age of rising hate crimes.
Neal Gabler, the journalist and author of previous books on Hollywood, Walt Disney, and Barbra Streisand, employs a method so stylistically and substantively opposed to Farrell in his chronicle of Kennedy that the books make for strange bedfellows. Weighing in at more than 2,000 pages, Gabler’s two-volume biography of Ted Kennedy asserts at the opening that its subject is the most powerful symbol of liberalism, and that scrutiny of his life doubles as a study of “political morality.” The first volume, Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour, 1932–1975, was published in 2020, and now the second volume, Against the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Rise of Conservatism, 1976–2009, completes the story.
Although quite an undertaking for the reader, Gabler’s obsessively thorough account feels more politically relevant and applicable. Properly understanding Ted Kennedy as emblematic of a full-throated form of advocacy for interventionist government, the “Wind” series offers an engaging analysis of liberalism in the 20th century. While Farrell doesn’t advance much of a thesis in his dragnet depiction of Kennedy, Gabler is committed to his argument to the point of fantasy.
If one is to believe Gabler, Ted Kennedy is one of the few sympathetic postwar figures of American politics—a lone hero out of the Disney movies he studied as research for his earlier work. Ignoring the historical record, Gabler asserts that Ted Kennedy was the only authentic liberal in the Kennedy family: JFK was a cold power broker, and Robert Kennedy converted to liberalism too late in life to make any real impact. To justify Ted’s injurious primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter, which helped to roll out the red carpet for Ronald Reagan, Gabler goes through a tortured exercise of sketching Carter not merely as a floundering president, but as a horrific villain hell bent on the dismantlement of liberalism. Kennedy’s irrational hatred of Carter was such a hindrance to sound judgment that he spearheaded the internal movement to destroy Carter’s comprehensive health care plan. Gabler tries and fails to defend Kennedy’s obstinance, but concedes that the Carter plan was, in hindsight, better than the Affordable Care Act.
One of the few criticisms Gabler musters of Kennedy involves the late senator’s cooperation with Carter on a deregulatory agenda. Acting on the belief that deregulation would lead to better and less expensive choices for consumers, Carter and Kennedy collaborated on bills that would strip regulations from the airline and trucking industries. The results were mixed at best. Prices initially fell—though they were already falling in the airline sector before deregulation—and new competitors entered the market. But when the era of lax antitrust enforcement commenced under Reagan, those markets, especially airlines, consolidated wildly, leading to higher prices, poorer service, and the steady dilution of organized labor. Later in life, Kennedy expressed regret for his involvement in the deregulatory wave of the 1970s. Gabler resorts to psychoanalysis as explanation—asserting that Kennedy viewed it as an opportunity to ingratiate himself with voters in an era of conservative popularity. Farrell quotes analysts who share Gabler’s cynicism, but also uses it as an opportunity to explore the “partnership” Kennedy forged with then law professor, and eventual Supreme Court justice, Stephen Breyer. It was Breyer who convinced Kennedy that deregulation could work within the frame of liberal politics by reducing costs for poor and middle-class consumers.
During the Reagan years, according to Gabler’s chronicle, Kennedy was practically alone in keeping liberalism alive. There is no mention of Jesse Jackson (reduced to “Black leader” in Gabler’s massive text) and his presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988, which collectively ushered millions of new voters into the Democratic Party. Everyone from Bernie Sanders to Lee Atwater credits Jackson with, in the words of Atwater, giving “the Senate back to the Democrats in 1986” and making “possible a new liberal politics in the dying years of the Reagan administration.”
On the subject of the Bill Clinton years, Gabler is at his most Hollywood absurd when he claims that Clinton won reelection in 1996 “in part by following the [Ted] Kennedy playbook,” and that Clinton’s high approval ratings were due to the Massachusetts senator’s fight to “keep liberalism alive.” Through his fan fiction rendering of the Clinton presidency, Gabler reveals that even if he has a sophisticated, and often brilliant, sense of how Nixon and Reagan transformed American political culture, creating many of the delusions, prejudices, and fears that are now so powerful, he has little appreciation for how influential right-wing propaganda severely restrains Democratic politics. Bill Clinton had to shield his administration from unprecedented personal and legal attack, counter the poisonous partisanship and austerity of the Gingrich agenda, and remake the American political vocabulary after 12 years of right-wing dominance. Kennedy did important work in the 1990s, but after winning reelection against Mitt Romney in 1994, he was safe in the Senate to thunder about “political morality.” Clinton had to govern.
Farrell’s well-written but stoic storytelling approach avoids Gabler’s pitfalls. By focusing on the senator’s achievements and shortcomings alike, he makes clear how important Kennedy was to the fight for liberalism without succumbing to hagiography.
It is on the matter of governance that Farrell’s and Gabler’s books are at their most salient. Although neither of them reach the heights of the Boston Globe team’s balanced and effective Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy, edited by Peter S. Canellos, they both give necessary weight to the staggering amount of legislation that bore Ted Kennedy’s fingerprints. The adoption of a more hospitable immigration system, the enshrinement of voting rights, the guarantee of health care coverage for children, and what some legal experts consider the most sweeping civil rights law in the nation’s history, the Americans with Disabilities Act, all became reality, in part, because of Kennedy’s tenacity and savvy as a legislator and negotiator. This list, as impressive as it is, barely scratches the surface of Kennedy’s résumé.
Despite Farrell’s restraint and Gabler’s excesses, the books make it clear that the achievements of Ted Kennedy in the service of liberalism are not merely the record of political gamesmanship. They are effective examples of how intelligent and compassionate public policy can improve the lives of actual human beings. In the period that Farrell and Gabler respectively chronicle, the political imagination shrank, and in its place arose the dangerous cynicism that questions not only the motives of political leaders but the point of politics itself. The right wing uses the widespread idea that politics is nothing more than an exercise in corruption to undermine the very notion of public service for the common good.
President Joe Biden’s victories on COVID-19 relief, infrastructure, drug prices, antitrust enforcement, and alternative energy demonstrate that liberalism retains its efficacy, even if there is little appreciation for the ideology, at least by name, among the electorate. To replicate those victories, and to preserve America’s fragile democracy, will require a regeneration of the political imagination.
One of the most beautiful eulogies in American history is the speech that a young, distraught Ted Kennedy gave for his brother Robert. Following the second assassination to tear apart his family and country, Kennedy said, with his voice cracking, “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; but be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
The eulogy serves just as well for Ted himself, who, like his brothers, used the messy and often ugly process of politics to comfort the afflicted. The children who have medicine that they would otherwise lack, the disabled who have opportunities and rights they were once denied, and the immigrants who risked everything to make an American life are living proof of the promise of liberalism.