You might have expected Ted Kennedy’s memoir to be about his life and times, or about his many campaigns, or about his legislative victories and his unconsummated causes. But it’s not. This is, instead, a book about Kennedy’s family. “From my vantage point as the youngest of the nine Kennedy children,” writes Kennedy, “my family did not so much live in the world as comprise the world. Though I have long since outgrown that simplistic view, I have never questioned its emotional truth…These values flowed into us on the energies of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. They helped us form bonds among one another, and to develop personalities based on those bonds, to an extent that remains to this day under-appreciated by chroniclers of my family.”
True Compass is Ted Kennedy’s effort to set those chroniclers straight. It is the memoir of an amazing life, yes, but that life plays a supporting role to the family that brought it into this world. The key moment in Kennedy’s run for the Senate, for instance, is a conversation he had asking his father’s blessing for the race. “Now, less than a year from my thirtieth birthday,” Kennedy writes, “I approached my father as a man, and it was as a man that he accepted me.” Jews have Bar Mitzvahs. Kennedys have statewide campaigns.
Elsewhere, Kennedy looks back on his first marriage, trying to understand where it went so wrong. They were mismatched from the beginning, he finally concludes. “Joan was private, contemplative, and artistic, while I was public, political, and on-the-go.” How did such an obvious misalignment go unnoticed? “I was keen to join my brothers as a married man,” Kennedy admits, “a family man. I certainly wished to be a family man. How could I not, given that ‘family’ virtually defined my entire consciousness?”
There is no event, or topic, that does not soon circle back to the Kennedy clan. “My interest in Massachusetts is not simply or even primarily strategic,” ruminates Kennedy. “The state and city of my birth are extensions of myself and my family.” Even Kennedy’s grieving section on Chappaquiddick, still raw with horror and shame and regret, does not forget the feelings of his clan. Explaining his long silence on the topic, he says that “I grew up in a family of people who didn’t want to hear you complain.” Detailing his mental state in those dazed hours after the crash, he recalls being “rational enough to understand that the accident would be devastating to my family.”
It is not until quite late in the book that history begins to be told through Senator Ted Kennedy’s eyes. Until then, it is told by Teddy Kennedy, youngest of the Kennedy brothers. As such, it is not afflicted by the straining insider-ism of staffer histories, nor by the self-justification that suffuses most memoirs. Rather, it is continually wide-eyed with wonder, the recollections of a kid who felt honored to be in any room where his big brothers were doing something important. Or even where they weren’t.
It is testament to the love and warmth with which Kennedy approaches his topic that the reader does not feel a tad cheated, despite the fact that some of the truly tremendous events in his life — the legislative battles he waged, the campaigns he led, the scandals he endured — receive rather cursory treatment. Kennedy tends to tell stories from his life rather than meticulously analyze it. A grueling campaign that took months can be over in a matter of pages. Bobby’s death is over in four pages. This is not a work of history. It is a work of memory.
In that, though, it is a rich look into the family life of one of America’s grandest dynasties. Bobby’s life comes richly alive in the book, as does that of John F. Kennedy, and Joseph Kennedy, and Honey Fitz and Kick and Joe Jr. and all the other members of the family. The narrative of Kennedy’s life is nothing so much as a vehicle for their stories. Fitz, for instance, was Boston’s legendary mayor, and a true retail politician. Kennedy tells of a Palm Beach vacation when Fitz happily parked himself in the hotel’s armchair and tipped the desk attendant to ring his bell once if a family was from Massachusetts and twice if from Boston. If they were from Boston, Fitz would bound to his feet to shake their hand. “You’re from Boston, aren’t you!” he’d say.
The Kennedys were continually near history, involved in history, or the instigators of history. Joseph Kennedy was ambassador to Britain on the eve of World War II. Joe Jr. was an aviator in the actual war. Ted Kennedy received Pope Pius XII’s first Communion. John F. Kennedy — well, you know what he did.
The book reads quite differently when Kennedy assumes his ultimate role as the family’s final standard bearer. He ceases to be so wide-eyed with wonder and so relentlessly reactive to those around him. The complexity of adult life seeps through. His anger at Jimmy Carter, for instance, remains fresh, and inspires one of the few moments in the memoir when Kennedy’s good cheer drops.
. . . President Carter was a difficult man to convince — of anything. One reason for this was that he did not really listen. He loved to give the appearance of listening. He made a point, for example, of bringing eminent people to the White House for colloquies in the summertime. You’d arrive at 6:00 or 6:30 p.m., and the first thing you would be reminded of, in case you needed reminding, was that he and Rosalynn had removed all the liquor in the White House. No liquor was ever served during Jimmy Carter’s term. He wanted no luxuries nor any sign of worldly living. . . .
. . . if you were a guest at one of these gatherings, you would get to the White House, and you would mill around, and you’d go through the buffet line and eat quickly. And then for the next three hours Jimmy Carter would conduct a seminar: of Africa, for instance. He would let you know that he knew every country in Africa and the name of every president in Africa. . . . They were personal tours de force, and every one of my colleagues recognized them as such, designed to impress us that the president knew so much about the minutiae. In contrast, when you read about Franklin D. Roosevelt, you realize he was the master of the situation he needed to know about. He didn’t know every name and place, but he knew what was worth knowing: the key people, what motivated them, and why they were doing what they were doing.
Decades on, the fury burns cold. But that is among the few moments in the book when Kennedy’s passion turns dark. Elsewhere, Kennedy’s passion envelopes his family, or his issues. And the issues cover a startling range. There are the big ones, of course. Health care. Civil rights. Vietnam. Poverty. Peace in Ireland. But then there are the small pieces of legislation Kennedy worked on, and takes pride in. The money directed towards medical funding. The nomination fights, the foreign visits, the constituent service. At various points in his many campaign, Kennedy was attacked for having never held a real job in his life. But he makes clear in the book that being a senator is a real job, and he worked tirelessly and endlessly at doing it well.
These portions of the book, however, suffer from brevity. Kennedy has done so much that he never takes time to explain anything in real detail. Grueling fights snap by in a couple of pages. Pivotal legislative victories seem almost preordained. The book does not ignore Kennedy’s history as a legislator, but that is not its topic, either. Kennedy is more interested in the people that populated his life than the achievements that will define his legacy.
One of those people was “a woman who changed the course of my life.” The chapter introducing Victoria Reggie is titled “Renewal,” and it is deeply touching. “I have enjoyed being a senator,” he writes, “I’ve enjoyed my children and my close friends; I’ve enjoyed books and music and well-prepared food, especially with a generous helping of cream sauce on the top. I have enjoyed the company of women… [but] I lived this string of years in the present tense, not despondently, because that is not my nature, but certainly with a sense of the void.”
That is, until Victoria Reggie, soon to be Victoria Reggie Kennedy, entered his life. The paragraphs with her presence fairly burst with adoration and happiness. They do not end the book, but in a way, they are nevertheless its culmination. In particular, Kennedy remembers a Thanksgiving shortly after he survived Mitt Romney’s challenge for his Senate seat. The family was congratulating Kennedy and toasting his win. They wanted a speech. So he stood. “Well, this victory really isn’t about me,” he began. “It’s about my family, and the people of Massachusetts, and –“
Victoria is up like a bolt. Her words are printed entirely in italics, which says something about Kennedy’s memory of this moment. “Please excuse my language,” she interrupts, “but BULL**bleep**!” She pauses a moment to let that sink in, Kennedy staring at her, shocked. “You know Teddy,” she says, “if you had lost, it would’ve been you that lost. It wouldn’t have been your family that lost. You would’ve lost.”
“You won. You won! Not your family. You.”
“Her outburst lingered in the air,” says Kennedy. “It has lingered in my mind ever since. I’m grateful to her for it. Her message to me was one I need to hear — perhaps one I’d yearned to hear.” There are another 60 pages left in the book. But that is the end of its story.