In Against the Wind (Crown, Nov.), Gabler charts Sen. Ted Kennedy’s liberal crusade in the Reagan era and beyond.

How does Ted Kennedy stack up against his brothers?

John and Robert Kennedy were entombed in the amber of youth, which made them mythological. Yet Ted Kennedy accomplished the most to help those in need. There is not an American whose life hasn’t been touched by his legislative victories as a senator.

Kennedy fought for liberal causes “against the wind” of a conservative resurgence. Did he succeed?

Not always. He was once chased by white Bostonians who were protesting court-ordered school integration by busing and escaped by racing into a subway station while aides held the gates closed against the mob. But he never forsook the cause of the vulnerable, particularly Blacks. Instead, he sought other avenues. Realizing that he would lose every domestic battle during Reagan’s presidency, he reacted by focusing on foreign issues, like South African sanctions against apartheid, and even got some Republicans to join him.

He also fought moderate Democrats. Was he out of step with his own party?

It could seem that way during the Carter administration, which he felt had surrendered Democratic principles, and the Clinton administration, which he worried would surrender those principles. During one meeting where Ted was advocating for a higher minimum wage, John Kerry griped that they should drop it, and Ted exploded at Kerry, a friend, questioning his Democratic bona fides and chasing him out of the room. He felt that Kerry had let politics override morality, and that infuriated him.

Did Kennedy deserve his scandalous reputation?

Kennedy’s personal behavior helped undermine the liberal cause. Ted was reckless. He was a prodigious womanizer. He drank to excess. He put himself in positions that he should not have. The William Kennedy Smith [rape case] was not his finest hour because he defended his nephew—Kennedys always defended Kennedys—even when there was evidence against Smith. Still, it was politics, not moral turpitude, that led to conservative moral hysteria over his sins. Even Chappaquiddick was a tragic accident, not a murder.

How would Kennedy fare in today’s polarized politics?

Kennedy is still relevant because his example shows us a way forward toward a more compassionate America. As the Republican Party was veering sharply rightward, Ted never capitulated. He knew how to work the moral lever. Joe Biden once said, “People didn’t want to feel small in front of him.” It was a potent force. The problem today is that most politicians don’t care if they feel small. They don’t care if they are small.