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The last lion of the Senate

Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography - Adam Clymer

In this book, Adam Clymer offers us a well-written, detailed portrait of the life and career of Edward Kennedy, a man who has long labored under the shadows cast by his ambitious family. Burdened by the expectations the came with the family name and tarnished by the self-inflicted wounds of scandal, he nonetheless persevered to become a force in the United States Senate, one whose career the author ranks as one of the greatest in the history of the institution.

Such a judgment certainly reflects Clymer's bias for his subject. But he does make a convincing case for the influential role that Kennedy has played in the Senate over the past three decades. Clymer conveys Kennedy's love for the Senate, which he argues was reflected in his half-hearted attempts for the White House in the 1970s and 1980s. While some may argue that his failure to win the nomination makes any effort to minimize his presidential campaigns a case of sour grapes, Clymer demonstrates how Kennedy thrived in the Senate in a way his brothers - who seemed to treat their careers there as little more than platforms from which to launch their bids for the White House - never did.

Yet Clymer's biography is not without its flaws. As some reviewers have noted, the book occasionally bogs down in the minutiae of legislative maneuvering, the deals and rules that play such an important role of Kennedy's career (and his mastery of which is one of the keys to his influence). Even more troubling, though, is Clymer's inability to reconcile successfully the powerful senator with the dissolute personal character. He acknowledges Kennedy's personal problems but refers to most of them in passing only, which has the effect of reducing Chappaquiddick to an isolated incident rather than the most tragic example of the personal conduct which has defined the man in the minds of many Americans.

In spite of this, Clymer's book stands as an excellent biography of Edward Kennedy. Detailed, insightful, and well-argued, it will remain for some time the best book about the Kennedy brother who might turn out to have been the most important and influential one of them all.