Picks and Pans Review: The Last Brother
This year's 30th and 25th anniversaries of, respectively, the John and Robert Kennedy assassinations offer the perfect excuse for publishers to trot out yet another bunch of "new" books on the Kennedy family. And this entry (the publication date was hurriedly pushed from October to July after some chapters of the book were leaked to the press) has already been mired in controversy.
McGinniss—the oft-maligned author of Fatal Vision and the subject of a widely read 1989 article by New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm in which she decreed that all journalists were, by definition, "con men"—has again succeeded in provoking not only criticism but contempt for his methods. He ascribes thoughts and motives to many characters, including his subject, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who refused all but the most perfunctory interviews. And he depends heavily on William Manchester's The Death of a President (1977), considered the definitive book about JFK's death.
This long rehash of already known facts and prevalent rumors, presented in prose so purple it should be used for Easter egg dye, doesn't deserve all the fuss. There are probably only a couple of theories that feel original. One is that paterfamilias Joseph P. Kennedy thought he needed one more child to pump up his wholesome, family-man image and so struck a deal with his wife, Rose, to produce No. 9, who turned out to be Teddy. Another is that Kennedy Sr. had promised the Mob that Jack would oust Cuban leader Fidel Castro if they'd help him get elected President.
For the most part, McGinniss—in 600-plus pages—tells us what we've already heard: that Teddy Kennedy was not the intellectual equal of his brothers (who were, in turn, no equal to the myths about them); that, as the youngest child in a severely dysfunctional family, he wanted for love and attention; and that he had a deadly drive for booze and women. McGinniss hits those themes so hard, in fact, that he nearly succeeds in making us feel sorry for the man he almost gleefully keeps referring to as "fat Teddy," and "the butterball." Which may be this annoying book's sole (and dubious) accomplishment. (Simon & Schuster, $25)