True Compass a Memoir, Edward M. Kennedy (Twelve, N.Y. and Boston, 2009)
This wonderful book is more than a memoir, it’s a love story, a love story about family, place, and tradition. It is also about the love of sailing, the sea, duty and obligation, the Senate, and even more fundamentally, love of country. I found it truly inspiring and I would recommend it to everyone.
Edward Moore (Teddy) Kennedy, the youngest of the nine Kennedy children, spent his life in public service, trying to do what he felt best for his country and its citizens. His was a remarkable family, born into wealth and privilege; none of the Kennedy children would have needed to spend their lives in public service, but all of them (with the exception of the unfortunate Rosemary) did, in one way or another, three of them paying the ultimate sacrifice for their choices: Joe Jr., killed on a volunteer airplane mission during WWII, John and Bobby both assassinated. Teddy, who might have seemed at first to be the least likely to rise to the heights, after some youthful mistakes, then hard work and perseverance, was rewarded by being elected to the Senate by age thirty, representing Massachusetts for forty-seven years thereafter.
This memoir was begun in 2004 as part of an oral history program at the University of Virginia. In it Senator Kennedy reviews his fifty years of public service, describing his role in the election of his brother John to the Presidency, his work on civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, Northern Ireland, health care, and on through to his role in the election of Barack Obama and his unfortunate health problem at the end of his life. He also reviews the politics of his brother Bobby, the Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush years, and much more.
In addition to being an enlightening discussion of American politics in the past fifty years it is also a fascinating personal account of his early life, his father and mother, his siblings, all of whom he adored, his first wife, Joan, from whom he was amicably divorced after many productive years together, and finally his second wife, Vicki, whom he credits for changing his life. Whatever questions there may be about his father, Joe Sr., and the source of the family fortune, there is no doubt his youngest child worshipped and was inspired by him, and also no doubt that he raised an incredibly fine family. Jackie Kennedy is highly praised along with all of Ted’s siblings. In spite of the fact they were all brought up to be highly competitive, there seems to have been a remarkable absence of serious sibling rivalry. Ted was awed by all of his older brothers and felt he had to live up to their remarkably high standards.
If there was any major flaw in Senator Kennedy’s character it might have been his penchant for occasional bad judgments. This can be seen in his early school days when he sometimes engaged in questionable practical jokes, was certainly featured in the Harvard scandal when he allowed another person to take a Spanish exam for him, resulting in a year’s suspension, and can be seen in other cases as well. Curiously enough, sometimes what I take to be his bad decisions turned out to have positive consequences, as, for example, when he agreed to ride a bucking bronco in a Wyoming rodeo, something he had never done before, which turned some Wyoming voters more favorable to his brother John’s quest for the Presidency. On another occasion he attempted a serious ski jump with no previous experience that again gained him favor. He could easily have been seriously hurt on both of these attempts but, as luck would have it, he wasn’t. His later bad judgment at Chappaquiddick, however, was to haunt him the rest of his life and helped to keep him from the Presidency he later sought. There is no way of knowing what actually transpired on that unfortunate evening, but he does confess to bad judgment, and I have no reason to seriously question his account. I do believe there was absolutely no romantic involvement with Mary Jo Kopechne, contrary to the scurrilous accounts at the time. Kennedy does admit to sometimes drinking and partying too much, and enjoying the company of women, but there is no indication of the notorious philandering characteristic of John. After the assassination of Bobby, Ted became the oldest male of the Kennedy clan, and as such responsible for their welfare. He performed these duties cheerfully and well. He was a good father, a responsible uncle, and a fine grandfather. If there was a dark side to Teddy Kennedy we would not expect to find it in his autobiographical memoir, perhaps future biographers will uncover something, but I doubt they will find anything very telling. The fact seems to be that although Edward M. Kennedy was, like all of us, flawed in some ways, he was always on the right side, if the right side involves trying to do what is best for the American public. He was a “liberal’s liberal,” who spent his entire career trying to improve the lot of his constituents as well as the public at large, attempting to look out for those lacking but needing influence. Unlike many of our current Senators there is no suggestion he was “bought” by subversive elements attempting to keep us in chains. He was, in short, a good and great man, representing what I believe to be the best in America. He did, as well as he could, follow a “true compass.”
Do I envy Kennedy’s birth into material wealth and privilege? Of course, in a way I do, but what I envy most is his being born into intellectual privilege, into a family that valued learning and knowledge, the wherewithal to achieve it, and the motivation and resources to convert it into notable public service.