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Review: Burton Hersh biography of Edward Kennedy an intimate yet clear-eyed portrait of a life in public eye

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

That was Al Pacino's lament in The Godfather, Part III, but it also applies to anyone who thinks they've read all the Kennedy books they need for a lifetime.

After the teary-eyed John and Bobby books of the Sixties, the Kennedy family epics, the historical fiction wrapped around the family's Ireland-to-America saga, and the myth debunking (principally Seymour Hersh's Dark Side of Camelot and a boatload of books by conservative authors), it seems that everything that could be said about America's royal family has been said.

Burton Hersh, who has a home in St. Petersburg, has written several other books about the Kennedy family, most recently Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover that Transformed America, published in 2008.

Now, a year after the last brother's death, he has published the massive Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography. Weighing in at 686 pages, it might be the definitive book on the youngest member of the family, and the one who had the longest career shaping public policy.

As a reporter, Hersh covered most of that career, even before Kennedy's election to the U.S. Senate in 1962. It was Kennedy's nature to make friends with people he hung out with for half a century, so Hersh's self-references here and there are a little jarring in a political biography. It was Kennedy's nature to ask friends for advice, so it's a step into a literary netherworld when Hersh writes about Kennedy's solicitation of the author's ideas on this or that political move.

But journalists or historians who became intimate family friends wrote some of the finest Kennedy books. At the beginning of the magnificent Robert Kennedy and His Times, Arthur Schlesinger said, "If it is necessary for a biographer of Robert Kennedy to regard him as evil, then I am not qualified to be his biographer."

Hersh's friendship with his subject does not affect the judgments he offers. Though he clearly admires Edward Kennedy, Hersh recounts Kennedy's prolific faults. The 1969 death by drowning of Kennedy campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne is dealt with in severe detail; nearly 50 pages are devoted to the accident and the senator's irresponsible behavior in its aftermath.

Similarly, Hersh deals frankly with the senator's alcoholism and indiscretions, including his failure as a patriarch to the next generation and its members' troubles with substance abuse and sex scandals.

But reading 686 pages about a saint would be tiresome, unless the work in question is a holy book. What gives Hersh's book resonance is that it is ultimately a story of redemption, told through the life of a dedicated and tragic public figure.

It's one more Kennedy book that you need to read.

William McKeen, author of "Outlaw Journalist," teaches and chairs the journalism department at Boston University.

Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography

By Burton Hersh

Counterpoint, 686 pages, $32

Meet the author

Burton Hersh will be a featured author at the 2010 St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 23 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Admission is free. For information, go to festivalofreading.com.

Review: Burton Hersh biography of Edward Kennedy an intimate yet clear-eyed portrait of a life in public eye 10/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 2, 2010 5:30am]

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