McGinnis book brings sympathy for Mass. senator

BACKLASH BENEFITS KENNEDY

August 21, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

EDGARTOWN, MASSACHUSETTS — EDGARTOWN, Mass. -- If the voters here are any barometer of public opinion, it might turn out that getting trashed by author Joe McGinnis in his controversial book "The Last Brother" was just what Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy needed.

Mr. McGinnis took a $1.2 million advance to write "The Last Brother," a harsh biography that has been scathingly criticized for everything from bad writing to attributing thoughts to Mr. Kennedy and his father to plagiarizing previous Kennedy histories.

If the literary critics are any guide, the reputation of Mr. McGinnis, a journalism prodigy whose book on the 1968 presidential campaign, "The Selling of the President," is still considered a classic, will never be the same.

But Mr. McGinnis just might have written a book that is so universally perceived to be unfair that it is fueling a backlash of support for Mr. Kennedy and his family. Even conservatives like columnist Cal Thomas have come to the liberal Democrat's defense.

"That book came out and tried to rehash all this old stuff -- and it really gets tired," said Christina Cook, who works in an art gallery here owned by her parents. "Of course, I'm partial -- I'm from Massachusetts."

This sentiment of rallying behind the Bay State -- and its most famous living politician -- couldn't come at a better time for Mr. Kennedy. Less than two years ago, after the rape trial of his nephew and before his marriage to Victoria Reggie, the senator seemed tired, beaten -- and, for the first time in Massachusetts politics, vulnerable.

Republicans were licking their lips in anticipation and encouraging popular Gov. William Weld to think about challenging a legend. The governor didn't rule it out.

But surveys now show Mr. Kennedy rising in the polls, and his 1994 election funds have reached the $2 million mark. Suddenly, Mr. Weld sounds distinctly hesitant to square off against the Kennedy legacy.

"I remember two years ago, during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill thing, that he looked so bad," recalls Ann McDonald, a native of Western Massachusetts now living on Martha's Vineyard.

"In the past couple of years, I think he's gotten back to being a good senator."

Nowhere is the view that enough is enough more true than here in Edgartown, where Mr. Kennedy was staying that fateful night in 1969 when he drove his car off a bridge at Chappaquiddick, just across the sound, killing 19-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne.

"We still have a hangover about that incident," said Dana Anderson, co-owner of the local bookstore. "People who live here don't like to talk about it one way or the other. Most people, certainly most Democrats, are able to separate his personal life from his performance in the U.S. Senate."

Ms. Anderson had Mr. McGinnis' book in the window for a while, and it sold a few copies, she said, although mostly to out-of-state tourists whom she describes as having a "ghoulish and morbid )) fascination" with the event.

More telling is that the Edgartown Public Library only has one copy of the book -- and it hasn't been checked out yet. Ms. McDonald, the director of the library, was going to order two or three copies but didn't because no one asked for it."

"People in Massachusetts feel for the Kennedys -- and Ted is the only one left," said Martha's Vineyard native Jean Andrews. "I think people realize that McGinnis just ripped people off. He put his own thoughts in the head of Kennedy's father. He didn't do his own research. He didn't even have an index."

Here in Massachusetts, the book is not selling as well as Simon & Schuster had hoped. It has been a bomb in Maryland as well.

"On its face the book is unfair," says Washington-based author Warren Rogers, who recently completed a book on Robert F. Kennedy. "So unfair that people started to look on their own for some balance."

Most of those sticking up for Mr. Kennedy try to find that balance by pointing to his lengthy record of achievement in the Senate, where he is one of the most effective liberal legislators in decades.

"We wouldn't even be having this health care reform debate if it wasn't for Ted Kennedy -- he's been carrying that ball for 20 years," said Frank Mankiewicz, a former aide to Robert F. Kennedy. "And everybody forgets little things like the 18-year-old vote, which he slipped in almost single-handedly one night."

Mr. Mankiewicz is in an awkward position regarding Mr. McGinnis' book because his wife, novelist Patricia O'Brien, is published by Simon & Schuster, and her editor there edited "The Last Brother."

Nevertheless, asked to assess the book's impact on Mr. Kennedy, he replies that the book's emphasis on Mr. Kennedy's family and personal life is so heavy that it almost draws attention to the unwritten story of Mr. Kennedy's Senate career.

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