Where did you first run into Edward Kennedy?
At Harvard College. He had been bounced out the year before I entered for arranging to have a classmate take his Spanish exam for him. Kennedy returned to the college after a stint in the U.S. Army in France during my sophomore year. It didn’t seem to me that he was chastened, particularly. He struck me as a tall, slapdash would-be jock interested mostly in the club scene, good natured but fundamentally empty. He liked to drink and he liked the girls. When he decided to run for the U.S. Senate at 29 I was shocked. More, bemused.
When did you begin to reevaluate?
A friend of mine, Professor Samuel Beer, who ultimately ran the government department at Harvard, had been retained by the Kennedys to prepare Ted for his primary debates in 1960 with Eddie McCormack. McCormack was a tough-minded attorney general in Massachusetts, and his uncle, John, was the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Working with Ted Kennedy, Beer found him intellectually agile, well informed, and very hard-working. At that point I was doing articles for Esquire magazine. I did one on Ted — it was later reprinted in Esquire‘s anthology of the best writing in the magazine during the Sixties — soon after Kennedy took his place in the Senate. I got to know him a lot better, made close friends among his staff, and continued to write about him and his family throughout the next forty-plus years.
What is new and different in your book?
A lot. For example, I was able to convince Ted’s primary mistress throughout the late Sixties and Seventies, Helga Wagner, to speak freely with me and share her angle on vital incidents. She was the person he called when he climbed out of the ocean after swimming back to Edgartown the night of the Chappaquiddick accident. Her memories of that historic exchange tell a lot.
Also, I have pulled together details of the blood feud between President Richard Nixon and Kennedy. Kennedy became convinced — on good evidence — that his life was increasingly in danger as long as Nixon remained in office, and contrived to position his friend Archibald Cox as special prosecutor to dig into the Watergate burglary and surface the tapes that drove Nixon out of office. This is a unique news break.
What do you think drove Edward Kennedy?
Ultimately, in that troubled, stress-driven family, Edward Kennedy was an afterthought. His whole life and career amounted to an effort to justify his existence, to live up to the perception he had of his far more gifted older brothers and his father. The paradox, of course, is that Ted was in fact the one with the extravagant gifts, the brother with the imagination and skills and judgement to move a significant political agenda. In time he became indeed a shadow president, the one legislator who could slow down or realize any president’s agenda.
Why didn’t he ever make it to the presidency himself?
I doubt that he wanted it, really. He had enough problems — with booze, with women, with his first wife and his sick children, with his recurrent anxiety about getting assassinated — without taking on the nation’s. I was involved in Kennedy’s 1980 run for the Democratic nomination, from writing speeches to putting up his staff that February — and I suspect that he sensed that assuming the country’s worries would be too much.
Where else should the reader look to inform himself about Edward Kennedy?
Nowhere. It is all here, the personal and the parliamentary. And fun to read.
Thanks. You give a wonderful interview.