SHELF LIFE- Plucky Ted: In speech, principle trumps politics
My Senator and Me: A Dog's-Eye View of Washington, D.C.
56 pages, $16.99, Scholastic Books (forthcoming in May)
America Back on Track
224 pages, $24.94, Viking (forthcoming April 18, 2006)
One need only consult the bestseller lists to understand that political figures often have enormous success as authors. Political authority, it seems, comes with the keys to the Republic of Letters.
Some politicians' forays into writing have been more successful than others. John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, written while he was the junior Senator from Massachusetts, was among the more commercially and politically successful attempts. The book pays homage to Senators who, acting in accordance with principle rather than the demands of politics as usual, did what they felt was right and best for the public even at the risk of their careers.
Despite the controversy surrounding the legitimacy of Kennedy's authorship of the book, the authenticity of its central theme is indisputable. That theme is clearly stated in the first line of the forward to the memorial edition, penned by Robert Kennedy: "Courage is the virtue that President Kennedy most admired."
Courage is also the watchword of the youngest of the Kennedy brothers, Edward "Ted" Kennedy, who spoke Saturday, March 18, at UVA Law School's seventh annual conference on public service and the law. A 1959 law graduate (after Robert, '51), Kennedy has become a champion of the left in recent years as a vociferous critic of the current administration's domestic and foreign policy.
Kennedy was the keynote speaker of the two-day conference that brings together students, citizens, and attorneys each spring to discuss current public interest legal issues. Its mission, broadly stated, is to "explore the path to social justice."
Also in attendance was University alum and benefactor Mortimer Caplin, a tax attorney once employed by the Kennedy administration and one of Ted Kennedy's teachers. After a round of crowd-pleasing anecdotes about Kennedy's mixed academic performance, the retired professor struck a serious note, addressing his former student's devotion to Constitutional principles.
With regard to Kennedy's distinguished record as a legislator, Caplin said, "He knows how to fight." Caplin also noted the Senator's 1970 introduction to Don't Get Sick In America, a book that decries the inadequacy of America's healthcare system.
Kennedy has two books coming out in April, enhancing his family's collective contribution to political nonfiction (RFK Jr. has written on environmental issues, and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg has penned two books on civil liberties).
Ted Kennedy's books are interesting counterparts: My Senator and Me, the first to be released, is a children's book written from the perspective of Splash, Kennedy's Portuguese water dog, intended to provide America's youngest citizens insight into the day-to-day proceedings of the Senate; the other is a political manifesto, America Back on Track, detailing Kennedy's views of the state of the Union.
America Back on Track is likely to echo themes Kennedy sounded on Saturday: having departed more radically from its original ideals now than at any other time in history, America is at a turning point, and an essential task of those in public service is to check runaway executive authority.
Political memoirs are written for various purposes and can have disparate effects on the writer's career. When Profiles in Courage was released in 1956, it put young John Kennedy on the political map. As winner of the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for biography, the book set him up for a run at higher political office.
Already in his seventh term, and having made one run at the Presidency, Senator Kennedy does not seem inclined to higher political maneuvering, and less politics is likely to produce more principle– less fluff, more substance.
Referencing Edmund Burke, President Kennedy once defined a courageous individual as one who "has put to hazard his ease, his security, his interest, his power, even his... popularity" in the name of his principles. "Calumny and abuse," Burke says, "are essential parts of triumph."
As was evident in his speech Saturday and as we are likely to see in his writing Senator Kennedy proves that politics as usual does not always trump political pluck.