The Last Brother should be in fiction

BOSTON—”Wouldn’t it be nice if it just dropped like a stone?”

My friend offers this as a purely wistful thought. The “it” we are talking about is “The Last Brother.” We are both too well-versed in the ways of the marketplace to expect that a flap about fact, fiction and fairness will result in a debacle at the cash register. Quite the contrary.

In the weeks since Joe McGinniss’ book on Teddy Kennedy came into view, or at least preview, it’s made more of a splash than a thud. First came the disclaimer: “Some thoughts and dialogue” were “created by the author.” Then came the disclaimer of the disclaimer. Then came the debate about biography and “free-form” journalism, about docu and drama, about taking license and just plain making things up.

Now the publishers are hurrying books to the stores. The excerpts are scheduled for Vanity Fair. The mini-series is being prepared for a TV sweeps week—the traditional time for tales of mayhem and mass murder.

As someone who prefers not to judge a book by its cover, or for that matter, by its first 100 pages—the ones that caused this debate—I waited until the entire 631-pate tome dropped, like a stone, onto my desk. And I found another reason to wish that “The Last Brother” might be the bombshell that bombs.

Yes, I share the squeamishness about putting words in people’s mouths and presenting mind-reading as biography. In the most dramatic scenes in the book, McGinniss tells us that Teddy Kennedy “must have felt …” He writes again and again, “It must have occurred to him …” “He must have known …” and, this is my favorite, “One suspects that Teddy sensed …” Between sensing and suspecting, it’s hard to know when you are in Teddy Kennedy’s head and when you are in Joe McGinniss’.

But it’s the publisher’s claim as well as its disclaimers that ring equally false to my ear. They have called the book “searing, yet strangely moving … curiously moving, both startling and surprisingly sympathetic.” In fact, it is strangely unmoving, both predictable and not-surprisingly unsympathetic.

McGinniss has made a composite of the very worst images of the Kennedys. It’s all there. The Kennedys are again the Dysfunctional Poster Family. Jack’s story of PT109 is cast as a cover-up for a screw-up. Even Joe Jr.‘s death on a volunteer mission over Europe is a “pointless accident” to which he was driven by competition with his brother. And Jackie, even at 24, is “uninterested in—and perhaps even incapable of—deep emotional attachment.” The only one who emerges relatively unscathed by McGinniss is Bobby.

As for Teddy, “the last and the least of them,” the “overweight, underachieving, insecure” portrait is as unrelenting as in any right-wing fund-raiser. At least the right wing has the grace to take the senator seriously as a political power.

The author has written as if he were inside Kennedy’s head. But what passes for psychological insight is a repetitious description of Teddy as the fat, neglected, 9th child, the family mascot and screw-up. What passes for empathy is the repeated claim the ” … he was simply unable to meet the demands of being a Kennedy.”

Over these years, I have been more than uneasy with Ted Kennedy’s private life, and written so. I don’t believe there is a wall separating the private psyche from public performance.

Indeed in the old era of Camelot myth making, a person’s private life, personal character and psychological make-up were ignored. People wrote biographies of Great Men and Their Deeds.

In the post-Camelot era—the open-season-on-Kennedy’s ear—we have become more interested in motive than actions. We are more interested in private behavior than public, in flaws than in strengths. For all the claims and the disclaimers, “The Last Brother” is not a serious biography and it’s not a novel. It’s more proof that there’s more than one way to draw a caricature. This one is pure cartoon.