Biography: The End of Liberalism with Neal Gabler
A Conversation with Bryan Boyhan
One of the challenges of writing a biography of a very public man like Sen. Ted Kennedy is that the public already has a pretty vivid perception of him. How do you combat that and how much of a challenge is it?
It’s not really a challenge. One of the reasons you do this is that if the public perception was correct there would be no reason to move forward.
You look at public portrait, explain how it evolved, and why it evolved and look at those places where the public person and the private person do correspond, the you create your own portrait.
But ultimately, when you delve into the life, when you explore that life, when you find out as many of the details the psychological motivations, the motivating episodes, when you explore the entire life it is generally very different than what public sees.
Most people are not “what you see is what you get.” There are many other levels to these individuals. And in the case of Edward Kennedy, the public image is a deceptive one.
Clearly the most publicized events — and maybe this is a problem with the media — are Chappaquidick, the drunken bacchanals…
The drunken bacchanal story is an interesting one; that story, that meme about Kennedy is the function of a single article that then got amplified throughout the media.
The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, or any of the so-called respectable journals, did not send out any reporters to find the evidence of Ted Kennedy’s so-called drunken bacchanals. Kennedy’s so-called misbehavior is a dramatic example of what I call “sort-of-know” journalism. You sort of know it to be true.
One article in GQ in 1990 by the late Michael Kelly, called “Teddy on the Rocks” and he who was a fearsome Kennedy antagonist. He was a conservative journalist who loathed liberals. He wrote this story, which was very, very, very, poorly sourced. I went through it line by line.
And that became the basis for all the journalistic tales of Ted Kennedy’s so-called drunkenness and womanizing and that sort of thing. I’m not saying that some of those stories weren’t true; but, journalistically speaking, sorta-know is not a standard.
But journalism and biography are two different species.
The journalistic portrait is always going to be different from the biographical portrait, because with a biographical portrait, you look at the life in a geographic way, you look at all the tectonic plates.
The journalistic portrait is to get out there to skim the surface. I’m not saying that’s the intent, but it’s almost always what you get.
We have very different mandates, which is why you get a public portrait that is almost entirely shaped by journalism, and then you get a very different picture biographically speaking.
What was the aspect of Kennedy’s life that called you to write a biography of him?
It was not so much about Kennedy’s life as it was about American culture. My work is very much impelled by trying to understand what makes America tick.
It’s essentially about the question I have about America and the American consciousness.
When Edward Kennedy enters the senate in 1962, one could say that American liberalism was at its high water mark. The distance between the Republican and the Democratic party —at least the moderate factions of those parties — was not all that great. One could say that liberalism was the prevailing ideology of the time. And then, over the next 47 years, it disappears.
And I thought it would be great to explore that through the prism of the life of the man who was arguably the single most important liberal of the last 50 years.
So the book was impelled by the desire to find out what happened to American liberalism. And I thought the best instrument for answering that question would be Edward Kennedy.
I should add, in narrative terms and psychological terms and characterlogical terms, Edward Kennedy is one of the most fascinating subjects any biographer could possibly ask for. He’s a man of extraordinary depth and breadth, having served 47 years in the senate.
One of the things I tell my students, the reason we write non-fiction, is that you just can’t make this stuff up.
Editing a biography is, I imagine, like chipping away at a sculpture — more winds up on the floor than is in the final piece. What are some of the pieces you wish you could find a place for, and how do you make those decisions?
I don’t know yet what’s going to fall by the wayside. The way I work, I collect everything I can get, and it’s a gigantic data base. I’ve been working on this for years and the data base is just huge. It’s thousands and thousands and thousands of cards.
It’s not until I finish the collection of the data base that I will sit down and see how I will shape the book.
It’s not to say I don’t already have an outline in my head, not to say I don’t know how it will go thematically, or what will happen chapter by chapter — I do know all those things. But I don’t know exactly what’s going to serve that map, or what’s going to wind up being detours from the road I want to drive in the course of the book.
Chaff may not make it in the book, but it does inform the book.
Until you sit down and ask yourself “What’s going to serve the portrait I want to create, what’s going to serve the narrative,” you don’t know exactly what you’re going to use and what you’re not going to include.
In the Los Angeles Times column you wrote after Kennedy’s death in 2009 you compared his life to the three acts of a tragedy. Is this what you imagine to be the architecture of the book?
I think so, yes. But, within that architecture you find so many different filigrees. You have the columns and the columns have all sorts of permutations.
You know, there’s a tragedy in [Kennedy’s] life and a tragedy in the culture and the two conjoin. I see this book very much as a book about political morality. His life is, in many different facets, an exploration of both political and personal morality.
It comes down to an idea of political morality and political authority and how those things function and have functioned over the past 50 years in America.
How has Kennedy’s narrative revealed itself to you?
I kind of know what the narrative will be; I just don’t know how, exactly, I’m going to formulate it.
I kind of see this story like the third part of a giant trilogy. And I think you can look at the Kennedy family — John, Robert and Edward — and each one filling a component of this large American trilogy over the last 60 years. That’s part of the general idea.
John Kennedy establishes a certain kind of persona, and a certain kind of political morality, Robert picks up on that and Ted is left to amplify it, to modify it and also to sustain it.
I see his life as the last third of that trilogy.
In my books, I take each narrative element, and divide the life into narrative blocks, which have a kind of integrity and closure to them. Then I try to find a thematic block that coincides with a narrative block.
What I’m trying to do is find the narrative blocks, which will explain Kennedy, and at the same time explain what is going on in America.
What have you learned about Kennedy that has surprised you?
That question is difficult to answer. When you enter the life, it’s like method acting. You become the life. One of the things that surprised me is that the public perception is that he was superficial. I think he was the most complex, perhaps the smartest of the three brothers.
There’s a story told to me by a Clinton staffer about Ted Kennedy when he came in to discuss a bill with then-Presdent Bill Clinton, who was a well-know policy wonk. The bill was like a hundred pages long, and Kennedy knew every paragraph of that bill. Kennedy was omnivorous.
We think of Kennedy as being the most Fitzgeraldan of the Kennedys. And by that I mean the Kennedy who is most like his grandfather, Honey Fitz, who was like a glandhander and loved to sing “Sweet Adeline.” That is a public perception because he enjoyed the hurly-burly of political life that neither John or Robert did.
But I also think he was the darkest of the Kennnedys. He was Fitzgerald, and that side of him did exist; but there was always a very dark side to him, a very contemplative side to him.
They talk about the black Irish, and people don’t think of him as black Irish; but I think there was very much a black Irish quality to him.
The standard line, the Michael Kelly line, which is now the conventional wisdom about Ted Kennedy, was that he was the carousing, overage frat boy. And he could get away with anything, he thought, until Chapaquidik; and that’s why he did it. I can’t think of a more erroneous or superficial, characterization of him than that.
I think that he was very Augustinian. My sense of Edward Kennedy is that he was a man who sinned to be redeemed. And that in many ways is the story of his life.