More Fiction Than Fact

August 03, 1993

Few books have received such scathing advance reviews as Joe McGinniss' "The Last Brother." The "last brother" is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the surviving son of the political clan that has inspired or infuriated this nation for more than three decades.

The book has been denounced as more fiction than fact, as cribbed heavily from other authors' works, as a cheap piece of tabloid journalism. Biography of a sort it purports to be. If so, we fervently hope "The Last Brother" is the last "biography" of its ilk.

A review of the book as a piece of literature was published yesterday in The Sun. Our concern is over the corruption of journalism that it -- and the much-criticized New Yorker profile of a Freudian psychoanalyst -- represents. In an "afterword" written as an afterthought when the denunciations started flying, Mr. McGinniss denies that he has written traditional journalism or biography. The book, the author says, is "a highly personal and interpretive view" of Senator Kennedy's life. Where New Yorker author Janet Malcolm stands adjudged of having rearranged and transplanted quotations attributed to her subject, Mr. McGinniss confesses to deducing by himself what Senator Kennedy might have thought at various critical points in his life, then presenting it as reality. With benefit of hindsight, he now calls these interpretations or inferences.

The reader who picks up this book innocent of its advance publicity and without first reading the "author's note" at the end would be pardoned for assuming -- incorrectly -- these were the senator's true thoughts, repeated or reconstructed by him later in interviews. In fact there was no interview of Senator Kennedy for the book.

Mr. McGinniss offers some lame defenses of his method. The Kennedys themselves, he observes correctly, did a skillful job of image-building with the aid of some complaisant journalists and biographers who should have known better. Two wrongs don't make a right.

The deplorable rearranging or reconstruction of quotations has become increasingly common in some responsible journals. That's bad enough, for it deceives the reader into believing something had been said by a person when in truth it had not -- at least not in those words or circumstances. Now we have the re-creation of a public man's private thoughts in times of great personal stress, which neither he nor anyone with personal knowledge has shared with the author. That's not journalism or biography, conventional or non-conventional. It's fiction, and not very creative fiction at that.

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