Revelations in Ted Kennedy’s Autobiography, “True Compass”

TruecompassSenator Edward Kennedy’s autobiography, “True Compass,” is out, and from the reviews, it appears to be honest, reflective and inspiring.

More than 30 evocative quotes from the book are posted on It alsorecounts Kennedy’s stories from his Senate career. The book’sprologue is posted at His son Teddy Jr. did an extensive interview about the book for “60 Minutes” on September 13, 2009. And both Teddy Jr. and Patrick Kennedy appeared for an in-depth interview on Larry King Live.

In anticipation of writing an article about the book, I obtained it a day after publication. What I enjoyed most was the portrait of a well-rounded man: a surprisingly good painter, a passionate if not always on-key singer, a lover of poetry, sailor extraordinaire who found spiritual renewal and sustenance from the sea. I would say that Ted Kennedy, given the gift of years, may prove to be the best of the Kennedy brothers.

The book has essentially three major revelations:

(1)  the hero of the book is Teddy’s father, Joe, who challenged his son to lead a life of substance and a life of public service. Joe has fared poorly in other accounts of the Kennedys, but Teddy felt his father was there for him, attentive, loving and caring, not remote and withholding at all.

“Although Kennedy graciously wrote, in dedicating the book to his wife, Vicki, that she was ‘my true compass on this voyage,’ clearly Joe, Sr. filled this role first, more than his siblings or mother, Rose,” wrote Matthew Storin in hisBoston Globe review.

He does note that his father authorized the “psychosurgery” (lobotomy) of his sister Rosemary, which went terribly wrong. He does say in the book, according to news reports, that he knew nothing of his father’s financial dealings nor of the allegations of his affairs. There’s no reason a child would consciously know those things. (Wikipedia entry on Joseph P. Kennedy). But some skepticism about the fullness of Teddy’s portraits of family members may be warranted: he dismisses as “bullshit” the allegations that John Kennedy was a chronic womanizer, and states emphatically that such revelations were “beyond the scope of my own experience.”

(2) Despite brother Robert’s at times antagonistic relationship with President Lyndon Johnson, Teddy had a good relationship with LBJ and credits him with pushing through much of JFK’s agenda, observed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in a “60 Minutes” interview about the book. He also understood LBJ’s jealousy of Robert Kennedy — Johnson felt Bobby was usurping the role of the vice president — if Bobby weren’t President Kennedy’s right-hand man, LBJ thought he might have been.

Teddy believed, not surprisingly, that John Kennedy would have seen the Vietnam War as hopeless, recalling a conversation his brother had with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara shortly before his death, and would have withdrawn almost completely by 1967. The tragedy of Lyndon Johnson was that his many successes were so over-shadowed by the Vietnam failure. Teddy himself turned against the war in 1967.

It’s also not surprising that Teddy preferred and admired Republican presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan far more than he did Democratic president Jimmy Carter, who he felt was petty, held grudges, had little interest in listening to him or others — a fatal flaw in a politician — and whose style of leadership was to remind Americans of their sins rather than inspire and lift them up the way the Kennedy brothers and Reagan did.

(Kennedy admits that he himself might not have been able to win against Reagan in 1980. In my view, his views were fundamentally out of step with the mood of the country in 1980 — that’s the real reason he lost the nomination battle — and his views remained out of step with the country until probably 2008. All the talk about Kennedy’s personal foibles blocking him from winning the presidency was historically and politically wrong — someone as liberal as Kennedy could not win the U.S. presidency after 1968, until 40 years later, in 2008. Timing in politics is everything.)

(3) Teddy’s strong Catholic faith, which served as a prime motivator for his social justice and anti-poverty advocacy work. He cites the 25th chapter of the book of Matthew, in which Jesus “calls us to care for the least of these among us, and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned. It’s enormously significant to me that the only description in the Bible about salvation is tied to one’s willingness to act on behalf of one’s fellow human beings. The ones who will be deprived of salvation – the sinners – are those who’ve turned away from their fellow man. People responsive to the great human condition, and who’ve tried to alleviate its misery – these will be the ones who join Christ in Paradise. To me, this perspective on my faith has almost literally been a lifesaver. It has given me strength and purpose during the greatest challenges I have faced, the roughest roads I have traveled.”

His faith helped him survive unbearable tragedy, believing as his mother did that a loving God would not give him more pain and loss than he could endure, or would at least accompany him in his pain and loss.

In the book, Teddy says he disagrees with the reasons his wife Joan publicly gave for their divorce after 25 years of marriage — his affairs and her alcoholism, which fed into and played against each other. He writes that they didn’t know each other well enough when they married and were basically incompatible. She “was private, contemplative, and artistic, while I was public, political, and on the go.” That’s plausible.

Some men are incapable of fidelity and an equal partnership. That was said of the Kennedy men, going back to old Joe. But Ted Kennedy proved, in his second marriage to Vicki Reggie, that he did not simply objectify women and could indeed develop the kind of truly equal partnership that his brother Jack was criticized for not developing in his marriage to Jackie, in an entirely different era for male-female relationships.

For my money, the best analysis of the Chappaquiddick incident was by attorney James Lange in the book, “Chappaquiddick: the Real Story.” He wrote that Kennedy did not report the accident sooner because he was in no emotional shape to do so, and his behavior was “consistent with amnesiac behavior.” There was little evidence that Kennedy or his advisors led a purposeful legal cover-up, Lange wrote. It was more that the people of Massachusetts had a very protective attitude toward the last of the Kennedy brothers. In his experience as a traffic accident/drunk driving attorney in Massachusetts, Lange observed that most any other citizen who had a concussion and left the scene of an accident in which a passenger died would have received the same conviction Kennedy did– negligence, suspension of drivers privileges for one to three years, but no jail time, and no manslaughter charge.

In any event, Kennedy in his memoir says his behavior was “inexcusable” and he was haunted by the death of Mary Jo Kopechne every day of his life, and his hard work in the Senate and as a surrogate father to his nieces and nephews was part of “the process of atonement.”

The LA Times’s Tim Rutten observes that what’s most remarkable about the book is “its capacious and generous spirit…(Teddy) unselfconsciously cast his own life as a story of interlocking loves — for life, his family, his church, his Irish heritage, his Democratic Party and its policies, for the U.S. Senate and for American politics.

The NY Times says Kennedy’s memoir is “deeply affecting…The theme of this heartfelt autobiography: that persistence, perseverance and patience in pursuit of a cause or atonement for one’s failures can lead to achievement and the possibility of redemption.”

Time says the book, unlike so many political autobiographies, has “staying power.”

Vanity Fair‘s Nancy Milford, the author of an upcoming biography of Rose Kennedy, offers perhaps the best written and most insightful review, “Ted Kennedy’s Home Port.” “While the prose soars, you begin to realize the enormous emotional price he paid for his dependence on that family, which could not be sustained into adulthood. He couldn’t remain the kid,” she writes.

The book even receives positive reviews in some conservative media circles. Most of the criticism from that corner (see the Weekly Standard review by Andrew Ferguson) centers around suspicions that the book was largely ghost-written by Kennedy’s collaborator Ron Powers. But The Washington Times contrasts Kennedy’s memoir with the predictably tiresome self-serving war stories of other politicians. It is “relevatory…(full of) self-reflection…an enjoyable work…the next best thing to…(sitting) with Mr. Kennedy on the porch in his beloved Hyannisport overlooking the ocean as he sips hot tea and tells yarns.”


Bruce Johnson said…

Reading True Compass, I feel a deep sense of kinship with Kennedy, something I’d long sensed with his family.

I’m sure that part of it is a sharing of universal human values, but I also wonder if common Celtic roots play a role. Ronald Reagan wondered if that was part of why he felt so close to Ted Kennedy, so whether I’m right or wrong, at least
I’m in good company! There are 4 specific areas where I sense that common Celtic influence:

– an exuberant attitude toward life, a love of doing things in a zestful way, whether it’s going for a sail or making a speech or even eating dinner

– a particular sort of sense of family. Of course, Celts have no monopoly on being family-oriented, of course! But there is a particular way of being family, kind of rough-and-tumble and affectionate at the same time, competitive and kidding and enjoying a friendly put-down or tease, but loving, and feeling a bond while also retaining a strong sense of individuality

– a love of language which includes a love of words for their own sake, and of putting words into the right places, and of using them in the right ways. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that Rose Kennedy would not only instruct her children on the fine points of language, and would penalize them for using the wrong form of a pronoun – Ted Kennedy, all
his life, showed the same care in his use of words.

– mysticism, in an understated & low-key sort of way that tends to avoid putting the word on things. But as you read Ted, there is no question that he and his family saw the hand of God behind creation, maybe never quite seeing God but knowing He is there somewhere.

The same subtle note of mysticism was there with Bobby Kennedy – in his moving appeal for nonviolence in the wake of King’s death, in which he quoted Aeschylus’s words on how through our pain almost against our will, we learn wisdom through the awful grace of God. And it was there in JFK, too, though he wasn’t an overtly religious man – the opening words of his inaugural address, like Lincoln’s great first inaugural, convey a thrilling sense of how the sweep of history itself conveys a sense of purposes beyond our own.

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