TRUE COMPASS by Edward M. Kennedy

Book Quote:

“What binds us together across our differences in religion or politics or economic theory is that when each one of us is cut, our blood flows red. Mine does and yours does too. Those who would try to appropriate God or family or country for their own narrow ends…forget the width of God’s embrace, the healing power of a family’s arms, and the generosity of this country’s vision. God, family, and nation belong to us all.”

Book Review:

Review by Kirstin Merrihew (NOV 15, 2009)

Early in 2009, I read the account of Edward M. Kennedy’s life entitled Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy. A synthesis of reports by Boston Globe reporters, it succeeded in presenting a balanced and quite thorough review of Senator Kennedy’s life up to the point where he was diagnosed with brain cancer. With that instructively under my belt, I was eager to study the senator’s own account, True Compass: A Memoir. How, I wondered, had he approached the delicate or controversial events of his life? Had he, for example, gone into as much detail about the Chappaquiddick tragedy as Last Lion had? How much had he wished to revisit concerning the assassinations of his famous political brothers? Had he gone into as many specifics about his major Senate battles as the reporters? What less well known facets of himself had he chosen to reveal? Were his reminisces more personal or more professional in nature?

Well, True Compass, which was published a few weeks after the senator’s death on August 25, 2009, occupies a different niche in the pantheon of Kennedy books than Last Lion. The late Ted Kennedy left behind distinctly personal recollections that are gentle, dignified, discreet, usually displaying no enmity, and focused more on people than on event particulars. He remembered stories about family, friends, and colleagues more frequently than a host of facts, dates, and figures.

He recollected being the youngest child of the Kennedy brood, fondly recalling early morning rides on Cape Cod with his father: “The plaid-shirted figure on horseback in front of me on those morning rides was not — and never would be to me — primarily an American diplomat, or financial titan, or motion picture producer, or source of exotic legend. He was my father.” So, for instance, if one wants to know what Edward Kennedy thought about Joseph P. Kennedy’s service as ambassador to Britain, he only commented that as a child he knew little about it and later there were things he would have liked to have asked his dad but did not.

As a boy, Teddy had other things on his mind besides the adult world. He mentioned his affinity for practical jokes, telling about putting dirty shoes on the piano and driving his mother crazy. When he began boarding at school he had a bad experience with a cruel, abusive dorm master, and before that he was temporarily parked in a class with boys four years older which led to loneliness and a sad episode with a turtle. A great student he wasn’t — perhaps partially due to changing boarding schools often. But, as he noted, in those days it was the norm for the well-to-do to send their children away to get educated, and he said he bore no grudge against his parents for following this tradition.

Gaining entrance to Harvard despite his less-than-stellar history as a student, Kennedy cheated on a Spanish exam, hoping if someone better versed in the language took his test for him he would get a grade ensuring that he could play football. Instead, the school sent him (and the young man who sat for the test) away for a year. He did military service before being allowed to return and graduate. He confided, ” ‘I felt terrible. I knew I’d screwed up.’ ”

After studying law and passing the bar in 1959, he helped his brother, Jack, campaign for the presidency by barnstorming (he’d earned his pilot’s license) in the western states. Once that victory was assured, Ted worked briefly as an assistant district attorney and then turned his attention to the senate seat in Massachusetts vacated by John Kennedy. But he had to wait to run until 1962 when he turned thirty. On November 7, 1962, he was sworn in as a U.S. Senator, and he remained in that body until his death. One of the stories he told concerned a senior member of the Senate, James O. Eastland, from whom freshman Kennedy was to receive his first committee assignments. After telling the young man to think about which committees he would like, Eastland asked him back and began plying him with liquor. Three times he poured outsize amounts into Ted’s glass and each time said, ” ‘You drink that drink there,’ ” and you’ll be on — as it turned out – the immigration committee, the civil rights committee, and the Constitution subcommittee. Even though the freshman managed to douse a nearby potted plant with some of his Scotch, he weaved a bit and reeked of alcohol afterward.

Ted Kennedy was not in Dallas on the fateful day in November, 1963. He was in the Senate chamber. He read the news on the AP printer and in the book recalled, “My first overwhelming sense was disbelief. How could it be true? And then horror, as I stood there listening to tick, tick, tick of the teletype machine. I couldn’t hear anything or anyone else.” Likewise, he was not in Los Angeles in 1968 when Robert Kennedy was shot and killed. About that loss he said, “Life and politics, went on, but not in the same way. Not for me. I was shaken to my core.” The title of this autobiography refers to the compass of a sailor. Elsewhere in the book, Kennedy asserted, “…keep a true compass and you’ll get there.” His recurring theme throughout the memoir was his love of the sea, his love of sailing. And after Bobby’s death he tried to find solace there: “I surrendered myself to the sea and the wind and the sun and the stars on these voyages. I let my mind drift, when it would, from my sorrows to a semblance of the momentous joy I have always felt at the way a sailboat moves through the water.”

Much later in True Compass, while poignantly marking the deaths of Jackie Kennedy, his mother, Rose, his nephew, Michael (in a skiing accident), and another nephew, John (along with his wife and her sister) in the 1990’s, the senator quoted a letter his father wrote a grieving friend in 1958, ” ‘ There are no words to dispel your feelings at this time, and there is no time that will ever dispel them…Then one day, because there is a world to be lived in, you find yourself a part of it again, trying to accomplish something — something that he did not have time enough to do. And, perhaps, that is the reason for it all. I hope so.’ ” The senator follows that up with, “I wish life were simpler. I wish loved ones didn’t have to die too young. I wish that tragedy never haunted a single soul. But to wish all that is to ask for an end to our humanity. God, family, and country sustain us all.”

Although this review has now in a sense come full circle, there is so much more that hasn’t been covered. Kennedy did address Chappaquiddick, but his purpose was to put on the record again that he regretted it and to state unequivocally that Mary Jo Kopechne was not sexually involved with him. He didn’t offer a punctilious timeline — for that refer to Last Lion.

He also told of his relationships with the presidents, and if there was one who earned the ire of Senator Kennedy it was, surprisingly, Jimmy Carter. He thought that Carter looked upon him with suspicion as a potential spoiler long before there was reason. The senator, in 1978, thought Carter was stonewalling on legislation for mandatory and universal health care, writing, “I felt that the president was squandering a real opportunity to get something done.” Also, frustrated, by cuts in spending that affected the disadvantaged, the senator decided Carter was “pandering to the presumed selfishness of the middle class.” Kennedy also criticized the Carter tendency to prefer facts and figures to people, reminding readers that Franklin D. Roosevelt “didn’t know every name, every place, but he knew what was worth knowing: the key people, and what motivated them, and why they were doing what they were doing.” Something else that alarmed Kennedy was Carter’s famous “malaise” speech. The senator thought it was “a speech born of panic” and added, “I watched the televised talk with mounting incredulousness and outrage. The message was contrary to — it was in conflict with — all the ideals of the Democratic Party that I cherished. It was in conflict with what the country was about.” Clearly, Carter’s intellectual approach clashed with Kennedy’s more social/networking one. Ultimately, Kennedy did challenge Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. In True Compass, he denies he weakened Carter so much that he lost, believing that Carter’s own conduct in office sealed his fate.

Until now, this review hasn’t really concentrated on a vital part of Edward Kennedy — namely, his politics. Presumably every knowledgeable person knows the senator championed liberal causes. To name just a few of his positions, he was an early advocate of civil rights, he crusaded against candidates to the U.S. Supreme Court whom he thought were wrongheaded ideologically, he supported access to abortion, he was a stalwart for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, he worked for the enactment of universal health care throughout his career, he campaigned for gay rights, he agreed with the court-ordered busing begun in Boston in 1976, he turned against the Vietnam War and later called the Iraq War a “fraud.” True Compass discusses all of these to one degree or another.

Interestingly, one doesn’t have to be in Kennedy’s political tent to take pleasure in his autobiography. Oh, there will be times when opponents of his policies will probably talk back to the page (as when he wrote: “While I haven’t mastered the art of talking conservative, experience has convinced me that genuine, principled leadership can persuade our people that their enlightened self-interest lies to the left.”), but no on can argue with him about at least one thing: we do all bleed red. And in True Compass, we see a a famous man being vulnerable (but not too confessional) and striving for honesty with beneficence. We see a real, thoughtful human being. He told of his first marriage with the restraint of time and a new love at his side. And his description of the courtship between himself and Vicki Reggie before he proposed and they married in 1992 is sweet and uplifting. His namesake son’s bone cancer story and the senator’s determination to do everything possible to help Edward Jr. beat the disease also engenders a feeling of uncompromising solidarity because everyone wants to do the same for their children. There are plenty of places to find the gossip and scandal on Senator Kennedy — he needn’t (and didn’t) tell it on himself, informing the reader that in his family they just didn’t talk about such things even amongst themselves, so (the unspoken thought can be completed) why would he have talked about it to us?

Repeatedly, Kennedy mentioned that he was basically an optimistic person. His book resounds with that virtue. He lived a life that forced him to bear many losses, and he did. He lived decades longer than his three older brothers and some of his sisters. He ended up as the surrogate father to many children and by all accounts he did himself proud fulfilling that role. He exuded energy and resilience. He built a nearly-fifty-year career in the Senate instead of becoming President of the United States, and kept the faith with his own political philosophy even when it wasn’t popular. For these things, I think anyone can say, “Well done, Senator Kennedy.”

In May 2008 Kennedy found out in the hospital that he had a malignant glioma that was judged inoperable. He and Vicki refused to accept that and opted for aggressive treatment. Instead of just a few months, he lived more than a year. As a man with wealth and prominence, he could access the best medical minds and treatments (just as he had done for Edward Jr.; in fact when covering that family crisis, the senator wrote, “However, unwittingly, I began to form the template for future counterattacks against the disease in my family, including my own test thirty-five years on.” ) to prolong his life and fight the cancer. He, as mentioned, was a career-long proponent of universal health care. One wonders what kind of care he would have been able to procure if he had been covered under a mandatory universal health care system. Some would insist that he would have gotten all the care needed; others would suggest that the system couldn’t afford to perform expensive surgery on someone who was going to die from the tumor sooner or later. That grim scenario aside, in his prologue, “The Torch,” he wrote about his determination to exhaust every resource and take every measure available to stay alive. He then became contemplative. “As I grappled with the dire implications of my illness, I realized that my own life has always been inseparable from my family. When I sit at the front porch of our Cape house, in the sunshine and sea-freshened air, I think of them often: my parents and my brothers and sisters, all departed now save for Jean and myself. And each alive and vibrant in my memory.”

In his Acknowledgements, Kennedy gave credit to Ron Powers, calling him his “collaborator on this project.” The senator praised “Ron’s gifts as a prose stylist” and added, “Over the past two years, he has infused my stories with his gift for language, his humor, his intelligence, and his compassion.” How much Powers crafted the final text is difficult to judge, but the book is beautifully written. The senator’s touchstones and sometime refuges — the sea and sailing — recur as restorative waves, touching the heart: “Sailing is still my favorite pastime. Being on the ocean has thrilled me and comforted me and protected me all my life, and I love that time now, perhaps more than ever.”

Everyone who writes their own story gets to choose what to include and exclude. Edward Kennedy, I think, was true to himself: he related mainly the human side of his experience because that was what motivated and animated him. True Compass doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know, but these are graceful, almost poetic annals (accompanied by a generous collection of photos) of a practically irrepressible man who just recently had to trade our world for history.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 177 readers
PUBLISHER: Twelve; First Edition (September 14, 2009)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AMAZON PAGE: True Compass: A Memoir
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Edward M. Kennedy
EXTRAS: Publisher’s Page on True Compass with Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Other “Kennedy” books:

Four Days in November by Vincent Bugliosi

The Secret Memoirs of Jackie Onassis Kennedy: A Novel by Ruth Francsisco


Other recent books on Edward M. Kennedy:

November 15, 2009 · Judi Clark · 2 Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Non-fiction

2 Responses

  1. poornima - November 17, 2009

    What an excellent review! Can’t wait to read the book myself.

  2. Kirstin - November 19, 2009

    Thanks, Poornima. I think you’ll really enjoy these memoirs.

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