- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

Probably no living politician has been subjected to more searching media scrutiny than the senior senator from Massachusetts, Edward M. Kennedy. In the twilight of his long career Mr. Kennedy is now the subject of Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy (Simon & Schuster, $28, 464 pages), a joint biography by staff reporters of the Boston Globe, under the editorial guidance of Peter S. Canellos.

The result, against all odds, is a readable, relatively objective study of the once most-vilified man in contemporary American politics.

That vilification is hardly without basis. The authors are unsparing with regard to Mr. Kennedy’s well-known boozing and womanizing. They quote a 1979 magazine article that wrote of his “frat-boy behavior,” attributing it to “a severe case of arrested development, a kind of narcissistic intemperance, a huge, babyish ego that must be constantly fed.” The authors acknowledge that their subject has on occasion wrapped himself in the Kennedy myth to escape the consequences of his misdeeds.

But Mr. Kennedy has also been an effective legislator. The cause with which he has been most closely associated is that of health reform, today one of President Obama’s top priorities. The authors believe that Mr. Kennedy’s experience with a son’s cancer, “spending hours in hospitals and talking with other parents,” gave him a deeper understanding of the medical problems of less-affluent Americans.

For all his retinue of advisers and poll-takers, Mr. Kennedy’s political judgment has at times been flawed. His 1976 challenge to President Jimmy Carter — a sitting president of Kennedy’s own party — resulted in disaster, first for Mr. Kennedy and then for Mr. Carter. The authors note that Mr. Kennedy is not quick in verbal exchange; they recall the 1976 interview with TV anchor Roger Mudd in which Mr. Kennedy was famously incoherent in articulating his hopes for the presidency.

Where Mr. Kennedy has excelled has been in set-piece presentations before friendly audiences, such as his speech before the 2008 Democratic convention. “In a voice that was … still capable of rhetorical thunder,” the authors write, the ailing Kennedy spoke with eloquence on the groundbreaking nature of Obama’s candidacy, touting him as a force for unity.

The authors contend that Mr. Kennedy has had an immense influence on legislation, stating that he has sponsored roughly 2,500 major bills in his 46 years in the Senate, of which at least 300 became law. The Globe writers compare Mr. Kennedy with Daniel Webster, the 19th-century New Englander who also spent four decades on the national political stage but never became president.

The comparison has some validity, but Webster jeopardized his political future in 1850 by supporting Henry Clay’s compromise legislation designed to avert civil war. Ted Kennedy, in contrast, has rarely if ever swum against the liberal Democratic tide.

The authors cite a Time magazine poll in 1978 in which 79 percent of those polled said that Chappaquiddick should not be a factor in judging Mr. Kennedy as a presidential candidate. Ultimately, Mr. Kennedy’s long political career, like that of Bill Clinton, suggests that American voters care no more about the private lives of their political leaders than about those of their plumbers and electricians.

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In The Young Charles Darwin (Yale University Press, $28, 276 pages), author Keith Thomson, professor emeritus of natural history at Oxford, concentrates on the science itself, ending his story just after Darwin achieved a working version of his theory of natural selection in 1842 and a fuller one in 1844. Thus Mr. Thomson traces Darwin’s tortuous path in which he sought “not to discover some narrow set of facts concerning the transmutation of species” but to bring together “geology, biogeography, formal structure and physiological function, embryology, heredity, mind and instinct” into an entirely New System of Nature.

Mr. Thomson traces the important early scientific influences on Darwin, from his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a noted doctor and prolific author, to the young man’s professors at Edinburgh (whom Darwin tended to slight in his “Autobiography”) and those at Cambridge. He had learned geology and mineralogy at Edinburgh and botany, entomology, and ornithology at Cambridge. Equally important, Darwin, an avid reader since childhood, always worked to understand things, not just to collect and document them. “Beyond the facts, he was interested in principles, processes, and causes.”

Darwin’s experiences on the five-year voyage of the “Beagle,” during which he studied Lyell’s “Principles of Geology” while observing, collecting, and organizing specimens in South America, set the ambitious young naturalist on a scholarly path. As Mr. Thomson notes, “Ironically, by laying out a complete argument against transmutation of species, [Lyell] had also set out the basis of a program of inquiry by which one might test whether the idea might be true.” Darwin took the challenge.

When Darwin began to investigate “transformism” in 1837, the critical issue for him turned on the birds and plants of the Galapagos Islands. Because the islands were of such recent volcanic origin, the author says, there were only two possible explanations for the diversity of species on the islands: “either the Galapagos species had been newly made by the Creator especially for those remote islands, or they had originated in situ by diversification from one or more migrant ancestors.” Because Darwin fully understood the controversy that would accompany any hint of evidence for transmutation of species in his “Journal and Remarks,” first published in 1844, he simply avoided the issue, stating that “there is not space in this work, to enter on this curious subject.” Darwin would continue to assemble evidence for his theory but waited to publish “On the Origin of Species” until 1859, when his hand was forced by the imminent public presentation of Alfred Russel Wallace’s similar findings on natural selection.

Mr. Thomson does not attempt to describe much of Darwin’s life outside science, but he engagingly takes his readers along Darwin’s path to scientific revolution, showing how Darwin “created a great deal out of existing ideas and concepts” in an era before scientists knew about genes, molecules, and the mechanisms of development. He concludes that Darwin’s “tripartite theory — variation, superfecundity, selection — has been amplified in many areas, but never supplanted.”

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.


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