Trashing Teddy Kennedy

Books: Joe McGinniss's biography of the senator from Massachusetts surfs in on a wave of controversy, but it's a sad, tired and mean-minded story

If the whole scandal had never happened-the dark hints of plagiarism, the threat of a lawsuit, the argument over manufactured thoughts and quotes--the reader would only have to scan the first paragraph of Joe McGinniss's book on Teddy Kennedy to know the truth:

"It was November 22, 1963. Teddy looked up at the clock again. Not yet 1:30. God. How long had he been here? What time had this session begun?"

This is the cheapest kind of novelistic landfill, invented musings meant to show a vapid fool on the brink of an awesome event. And The Last Brother (626 pages. Simon & Schuster $25) doesn't get any better as the sad, familiar story unfolds. The book is on sale this week, rushed to bookstores ahead of schedule to capitalize on the weeks-long controversy. McGinniss's editor, Michael Korda, calls it "brilliant" and "insightful," and McGinniss himself calls it an effort "to distill an essence...to convey to a reader what it might have been like to be Teddy Kennedy." But it's simply a bad book, a stale farrago of scandal and pop psychology that begins and ends by trashing its subject.

The prepublication hassle has focused on the book's first section, a 127-page chronicle of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and its immediate aftermath, which was circulated by the publisher in May. The controversy started when Simon & Schuster inserted a disclaimer explaining that McGinniss had made up "some thoughts and dialogue" in the book; then McGinniss had the disclaimer deleted. Three weeks ago an article in New York Magazine noted remarkable resemblances between some McGinniss passages and William Manchester's 1967 book, "The Death of a President" (box).

As McGinniss concedes in a new afterword to the book, much of the first section's narrative was drawn directly from Manchester's book. But he denies plagiarizing anything, and insists he did nothing wrong in freely inventing thoughts and minor stage directions for people he never interviewed. In fact, he has said that this "intimacy of tone" makes the segment the strongest part of the book. But that boast is as dubious as the practice itself-, as used, it consists of a lot of characters fumbling for words, sinking down in their seats and mumbling thoughts evoking Tom Clancy at his most pedestrian: "Teddy saw banks of bright lights. Television. Of course. He should have expected television."

Even if this sort of thing were well done, many serious biographers deplore it. "Joe McGinniss is putting thoughts in the head of a character, and you feel that these thoughts come from Teddy Kennedy," says Doris Kearns Goodwin, another major McGinniss source who has written about both the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson. "If you go over that line, you might lose the reader's trust in the information where you do have sources." While McGinniss says he did "dozens" of interviews to back up his clips, he names none of his sources and no Kennedys were among them.

The book follows Kennedy's life from childhood through the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick, with only a sketch of the years since 1969. Most of it is oddly unlike the first segment: the novelistic devices are less obtrusive, the prose less tabloid and the narrative a bit more straightforward. But the story is as numbingly familiar as the "insights": how Teddy, the amiable but underachieving youngest child, was neglected and shunted from one boarding school to the next; how he tried vainly to measure up to the fiercely competitive family; how the deaths of his brothers pressured him to take on their mythic mantle, and how his failure drove him to self-destructive boozing, womanizing and finally a fiasco so devastating that talk of a Kennedy restoration might finally be stilled.

If there's news in the 500 newly released pages, it is that McGinniss accepts as hard fact the Mafia-conspiracy theory of the assassination of JFK. The theory is well known and plausible. To oversimplify, McGinniss conjectures that Joseph P. Kennedy ensured his son's election to the White House by contracting with organized crime to steal the vote in Illinois, but that JFK failed to keep his father's promises and Bobby Kennedy, unaware of the deal, insisted on crusading against the Mafia in his new role as attorney generaL

McGinniss quotes Carlos Marcello, the head of organized crime in Louisiana, telling a friend that the president would be killed: "a nut" would be hired for the job and would "take all the heat." McGinniss concludes portentously: "Not coincidentally, perhaps, a Marcello associate in New Orleans had living with him at the time a nephew, recently returned from the Soviet Union, named Lee Harvey Oswald."

Strong stuff, but maddeningly elusive. McGinniss cites no sources and provides no footnotes, only a bibliography that includes both respectable and flaky assassination books. There's little doubt that the elder Kennedy had contacts in organized crime, but even McGinniss cites no evidence that Joe Kennedy used those connections in the 1960 election. The alleged Marcello conversation was taken seriously by a House committee in the late '70s, though Marcello denied it. The House also found that Oswald's uncle Charles (Dutz) Murret was indeed an associate of Marcello's.

None of this proves the thesis, but McGinniss takes it as a given-and depicts Joseph Kennedy, mute and bedridden by a stroke, learning of his son's death and figuring out the connection: "He knew that years earlier he'd made promises he hadn't kept. And that quite possibly, Jack had paid for these unkept promises with his life."

McGinniss knows about controversy. His fine first book, "The Selling of the President," drew Republican blood with its dissection of the 1968 Nixon campaign; more recently, the writer Janet Malcolm accused him of betraying his sources in "Fatal Vision," his 1983 best seller about the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case. But is he guilty of plagiarism? Despite the parallels between many of his passages and Manchester's, he argues that he used only facts and quotes, fair game once they have been printed. Manchester says his lawyers believe McGinniss overstepped the line by following the sequence of Manchester's narrative.

Egged on by a phone call from Ted Kennedy himself, Manchester threatened to sue for infringement of copyright. Last week Simon & Schuster escalated the war by distributing comparisons of another Manchester book with one of Hugh Sidey's; Sidey said he didn't feel injured, and Manchester said he had interviewed Sidey but never read his book. Will he sue? "I'm going to do something. They're getting my blood up," Manchester told NEWSWEEK.

In the end, the controversy is a teapot tempest over a cruel and meanspirited rehashing of the Kennedy saga. But it's far from the first time a publisher has stirred up scandals to salvage a forlorn gamble. Simon & Schuster reportedly paid McGinniss a $1 million advance for this turkey, and 250,000 copies are on their way to market. How else can they be sold?

McGINNISS: RECALLING THAT ONE OF LITTLE JOHN-JOHN'S FAVORITE GAMES HAD BEEN TO PLAY SOLDIERS WITH HIS FATHER, SHE SAID, 'JOHN, YOU CAN SALUTE DADDY NOW AND SAY GOOD-BYE.'

MANCHESTER: JACQUELINE KENNEDY, REMEMBERING HOW THE BOY HAD LOVED TO PLAY SOLDIERS WITH HIS FATHER, LEANED OVER AND TOOK THE BOOKLET FROM HIM. SHE SAID, 'JOHN, YOU CAN SALUTE DADDY NOW AND SAY GOOD-BYE TO HIM.'

McGINNISS: THE PRESS FELLOW WAS RUNNING FROM MEMBER TO MEMBER WHISPERING SOMETHING TO EACH, THEN DASHING ON. EV DIRKSEN SLUMPED IN HIS SEAT, LOOKING AS IF HE'D JUST BEEN KICKED IN THE GROIN. SPESSARD HOLLAND'S MOUTH GAPED OPEN EVEN WIDER THAN USUAL.

MANCHESTER: HE RACED UP TO SENATOR AFTER SENATOR, SPUTTERING, 'THE PRESIDENT'S BEEN SHOT--THE PRESIDENT--HE'S BEEN SHOT!' HOLLAND OF FLORIDA GAPED AT HIM, DIRKSEN OF ILLINOIS SAGGED.