Imagine a new Kennedy book -- Joe McGinniss did

Monday Books

August 02, 1993|By Robert Reno

THE body of Kennedy family literature has become so glutted with trash -- from the adoring to the tittering to the scurrilous -- that it is difficult to imagine there is a Kennedy book, screenplay or docudrama left that could be worth a more serious literary debate than is normally provoked by the publication of a new Dell comic.

But written one Joe McGinniss has. And surely someone in the publishing industry must now, in gratitude, endow a prize for the most imaginative sales-generating stunt by an author writing on a subject on which he has little original to say. After all, anybody who can invent dialogue can throw together another blockbuster on Princess Diana.

No such garbage for Mr. McGinniss. He has taken on Teddy Kennedy just as the senator seems to be settling comfortably and unremarkably into an uneventful middle age and marriage. Whole weeks go by without Teddy appearing on the cover of a single supermarket tabloid. But Mr. McGinniss has managed to set the literary world atwitter with outrage and expectation. He has made publishing history by finding himself widely accused of being both grossly plagiaristic and grossly inventive -- and in the same book.

To be fair, there isn't a shred of evidence that all this publicity is the result of a conspiracy between Mr. McGinniss and the sales staff of Simon & Schuster. As Mr. McGinniss pleads with us to believe in his author's note at the beginning of "The Last Brother," "different subjects call for different techniques. I would contend that when an individual is encrusted with fable and lore as is Teddy Kennedy (and his brothers), a writer must attempt an approach that transcends that of traditional journalism or even, perhaps, of conventional biography."

And I guess I would have to contend that with an author fast becoming as encrusted with fable and lore as Joe McGinniss, we must be at least as free to transcend our traditional disposition to believe that no respectable publishing house would have participated in a crude plot to generate a torrent of advance publicity for this book.

If we give ourselves half the license Mr. McGinniss has given himself, we can leap to some fairly mean conclusions. We need but borrow from Mr. McGinniss as liberally as he is accused of borrowing from William Manchester. He uses phrases like "it must have seemed to Teddy," "it was entirely possible" and "it must have occurred to him."

Since I have never interviewed Mr. McGinniss (nor has he interviewed the senator), I can only guess that it must have seemed to Mr. McGinniss and it must have occurred to his publishers that they have struck a gold mine here with a dog of a book. Surely it is as entirely possible that Mr. McGinniss planned it this way.

"Not that there is any evidence he considered this," as Mr. McGinniss says of one of the things he then goes on to imagine Kennedy doing, in this case plunging "fully clothed, into the roiling frigid waters of Nantucket Bay."

The suggestion in some circles that Mr. McGinniss has invented a new form of biography appropriate to the excessively famous is asinine. It was invented years ago by whoever it was at the National Inquirer who made up the first Elvis sighting.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

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