True Compass was written by Senator Edward M. Kennedy with help from his own memory, a diary (which he began keeping early in life), the writer Ron Powers, and many participants who spoke of Kennedy for the University of Virginia oral history project. The result is an enjoyable read that goes back five generations to 1840s Ireland and then works its way forward to Kennedy’s birth in 1932 and on through his life until a few weeks before his death.
Kennedy writes of his family, “My story is their story, and theirs is mine. And so it shall be in these pages.” (A primary role is also played by the sea, to which, in one way or another, page after page, year after year, Kennedy turns for comfort.)
Kennedy’s early life as the baby of his large family was full of event. By the time he was 11 he had attended 10 different schools. When World War II began, his father Joseph Kennedy Sr. was US ambassador to London. Some of the family were sent home for safety. From there the 9-year old wrote his father: “Dear Daddy, ... I hope not many bombs have drop near you ... my reading is beter [sic] in school love Teddy”. He was always “Teddy” to his family.
Kennedy’s oldest brother, Joseph Jr., was killed in action after the United States went to war. He and John and Robert were their youngest brother’s idols – but it was he who eventually became the substitute for them to their families.
But before that, he got his first bad headline. He was suspended from Harvard for cheating on a test. He left for the Army.
After he returned, he became fully immersed in national politics. He loved it. He worked for John’s presidential run in 1960. He was green but eager – and daring enough to do anything he was asked if he thought it would help his brother. He rode a bronco in a Montana rodeo. He went off a high Wisconsin ski jump – a stunt dangerous beyond his experience.
Two years later, he was elected to the president’s vacated Senate seat, and he behaved as freshmen in the Senate were expected to behave – he was quiet and he listened. He courted a powerful Mississippi committee chairman, James Eastland, drank with him, and though they were miles apart on civil rights legislation, they became friends. It would be the same with many others.
Kennedy was sharpening his ability for the coming decades, in which he became able to get conservatives like John McCain of Arizona, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and even Phil Gramm of Texas to help him pass bills. (Senator McCain called Kennedy-Gramm “one of the strangest alignments” ever.) Such alliances brought legislative accomplishments over the years on some of his favorite issues – civil rights, immigration, healthcare.
But “True Compass” is about more than just Kennedy’s legislating. There are better books for that. (The best is “Kennedy: a Biography” by Adam Clymer.)
But as Doris Kearnes Goodwin, once a campaign aide for Kennedy and the author of “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An America Saga,” said of “True Compass”: “This is really the first time we get the story of the Kennedys from the inside.”
Kennedy made headlines even when politics and government were not involved. His broke his back in an airplane crash in Massachusetts. He took a late night visit with a son and a nephew into a Florida bar that led to the nephew’s being charged with rape. And no book about Kennedy can ignore Mary Jo Kopechne, the former aide to the assassinated Robert Kennedy
In 1969 Kennedy aides were partying on Massachusetts’s Chappaquiddick Island. Kennedy was there and left with the young aide in his car. He drove into a pond, where she drowned. He fled. Later he pled guilty to leaving the scene, but was not jailed. He agrees in his book that, “My actions were inexcusable.”
Perhaps Vickie’s great gift to her husband was to embrace him as an individual and not just a Kennedy. In “True Compass” Kennedy writes touchingly about Thanksgiving Day, 1994. He had just been reelected to the Senate. Several generations of Kennedys and some former and present aides were guests. Both the family members and their histories, and the campaign aides with their political remembrances were swapping anecdotes, and, Kennedy writes, “the wine was flowing and everyone was toasting me and congratulating me on the win.... ‘Well, this victory really isn’t about me. It’s about my family, and it’s about the people of Massachusetts and their residual goodwill that goes back all the way back to Granpa’s day –
“Suddenly, Vickie was on her feet, cutting me off, ‘Please excuse my language, but BULL[deleted]! This is just ridiculous!... You know, Teddy, if you had lost, it would’ve been you that lost ... You won. Not your family. You.’
“Her outburst lingered in the air.... I’m grateful to her for it. Her message to me was one I needed to hear – perhaps one I’d yearned to hear.”
Theo Lippman Jr. is author of “Senator Ted Kennedy: The Career Behind the Image.”