Edward M. Kennedy: True Compass – A Memoir

by Rachel Baker on December 5, 2009

Who is Ted Kennedy? To be completely frank, I knew of him only as the younger brother of Jack and Bobby, senator of Massachusetts, and the guy in the Chappaquiddick “thing.”  I use the word “thing” because I didn’t really know what happened other than some girl died and he was driving. When Ted Kennedy died, I was struck by the amount of people who paid their respects during the memorial and the funeral.  I was intrigued by what people were saying about this man, friends and foes, on the news channels.

Who was this man?

I wanted to know the answer to this question.  I requested True Compass for review, not really expecting to receive it, due to its popularity.  However, Twelve Books sent it.  When it arrived, I got out my pencils and went to work trying to understand who this man was.

Memoirs are written to tell the story the subject wants you to know about his or her life.  I am fully aware of this. I am not sure what I expected when I began reading True Compass, but I was thrilled with its easy, conversational tone. I am not sure there is any politician out there who doesn’t use a ghost writer and if you pay close attention, you can figure out which voice is which in a memoir. I have no idea what Ted Kennedy’s written voice is. However, I thought it was difficult to tell where his voice ended and Ron Powers voice began.

In reading True Compass, one thing that struck me is he never really expands on others reasons or failures during the events he tells about.  He mentioned his sister Rosemary’s “operation” and the role his father played, but never used the word lobotomy and never tried to offer conjecture on what Joe Sr. felt about this horrible event.  Many events are described this way.  He discribes events from his perspective and nothing more.  The above-mentioned event happened when he was a child and that’s the perspective he gave.

When he is discussing his own role in certain events, he states the equivalent to:

I regret my failings and accept responsibility for them and will leave it at that. (specifically, this was in regards to his relationship with Joan, his first wife).

Another striking aspect of this memoir is how interlaced family was to his life. Over the course of the book, he will tell about time he spent as an adult with his brothers, and then end with something like, ‘to this day, I still miss Jack’s smile.’

When I closed True Compass, I thought what a social tragedy that the Kennedy’s were put on a pedestal.  Sure, they had LOTS of money, and sure three of the boys went into the very public life of politics; but, they were a regular family.  They weren’t just a rich family that sat in their home in Hyannis Port; they all tried to help those less fortunate than they were.  And regardless of your politics, you have to admire that.

Ted Kennedy’s memoir is written in a matter-of-fact tone and gives away no family secrets. If a reader is looking for the deep dark secrets of the Kennedy family, he or she will be sorely disappointed.

He says of the Warren Commission that Bobby “did not want to continue to investigate Jack’s death.” Ted was satisfied with the findings and and, Bobby was too. And he says:

I was satisfied then, and satisfied now.

and in regard to Bobby’s satisfaction with the Commission report:

I’m always reluctant to speak for my brother, but I know how strongly Bobby felt that it was imperative that this inquiry be thorough and accurate.  In all my subsequent conversations with him, when all was said and done, I believe that Bobby accepted the Warren Commission findings too.

Of Chappaquiddick he says this (after telling the events as he remembers them):

I am not proud of these hours.  My actions were inexcusable.  Perhaps I have not made my acknowledgment of this clear enough over the years.

and then:

Atonement is a process that never ends.  I believe that.  Maybe it’s a New England thing, or an Irish thing, or a Catholic thing.  Maybe all of those things.  But it’s as it should be.

On the emotional front, Ted Kennedy strays from the matter-of fact tone only when talking of his own grief and the role the ocean played in his healing. Its no secret being on the water soothed the Lion of the Senate.  He tells of the first time being in a boat offered him solace. The news that Joe, jr.  had died had just come to his brothers, sisters and mother.  The family let the news sink in for about 15 minutes before Jack said, “Joe wouldn’t want us sitting here crying.  He would want us to go sailing.”

And Ted says of this moment:

My countless hours upon the sea have mostly been happy ones.  this was the first of the many times when taking the tiller has steered me away from nearly unendurable grief across the healing waters on the long, hard course toward renewal and hope.

Of Jack’s death and how he coped with the grief, he says:

It was in these moments, when I was out of sight of anyone else, just the sea on one side of me and the sand on the other, that I would let go of my self-control.

It never occurred to me to seek professional help or grief counseling of any kind.  The times were different then.  But I prayed and I thought and I prayed some more.

Of Bobby’s death he says:

Life and politics, went on.  But not in the same way.  Not for me.  I was shaken to my core.


The months following Bobby’s death are a blur in my memory…I got into my car and drove toward Capital Hill.  Whne the Senate Office Building came into view, I began breathing heavily.  I turned the car around and went home.

And again, he would go sailing.  The chapter titled Bobby ends with,

I surrendered myself to the sea and the wind and the sun and the stars on these voyages.”

“And on these nights in particular, my grieving was subsumed into the sense of oneness with the sky and the sea.”

“I gazed at the night sky often on those voyages, and thought of Bobby.

Throughout the book, he talks a great deal about the love he had for his brothers. His whole life he wanted to be like them.  He was the youngest brother of a family of nine and early on his father told Ted if he wasn’t useful, he wouldn’t have the time for him, because there were people in the family who would have need of their father’s time.  Little Ted Kennedy doted on his older brothers and from what I could tell, had an everlasting love for them even long after they’d gone.

And the only cuss word Ted uses in the whole book comes in this passage:

Let me acknowledge here that a loyal and loving brother cannot provide a dispassionate view of John Kennedy’s presidency.  Much has been written about his personal life.  A lot of it is bullshit.  All of it is beyond my scope of my direct experience.

On the political front, as one would expect from a Ted Kennedy memoir, a great deal of time is spent discussing health care and his own introduction to our society’s health care institution. By no means, does this mean, health care is all he discusses politically.  There are some intriguing bits and pieces about each Presidents’ decision over the course of Kennedy’s time in the Senate.

I preface this next part with I am not a student of political science.  I have only recently really started trying to get to the crux of what is going on in American politics.  And have given myself the personal challenge of reading more political-centric books in 2010.  That said, I am intrigued by the trends in political discourse and the way the different parties use the exact same tactics every few years.  One can easily see the same tactics used today in Congress, as were used during the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton eras. It was actually astounding as as I went back and looked at the notes I took while reading True Compass, the associations I made between Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan, and health care legislation today and medicare legislation.

After reading True Compass, I am reminded of that age old question, if you could have five people from history at a social gathering, which people would you choose?  I would choose Ted Kennedy – not the politician, but the man.  True Compass, in my humble opinion, is a book written by the man about the man.  He was not one to ever put his feelings on his sleeve; though I believe with the tragedy he faced throughout his life, this would have been perfectly acceptable to some extent.  He was a man living in the shadows of his family, until very late in life when Vicky helped him realize he didn’t have to anymore. And he was a man who despite the horrific tragedy, learned from his grandfather Honey Fitzgerald to “Love life, and believe in it.” And he tried, I think.

On page 480 of True Compass, he says:

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.

That is a man I’d like to have at a social gathering – not to ask him questions about his life and his politics, but to instead watch him infuse a room full of people with the spirit of warmth and understanding that we are all equal.

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