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Book Review

True Compass

By Joel Bleiwas
Published: September 2009

Senator Edward M Kennedy

Twelve Books (New York: 2009)

It is, of course, much too early to effectively evaluate the career of Senator Edward M (“Ted) Kennedy.

That being said, Senator Kennedy’s just-completed autobiography, True Compass, will provide that ever-helpful first-hand account, so useful to the historian and so fascinating to the general public.

Whether one is a supporter or detractor of Kennedy’s views and decisions, this book will help both to evaluate this important historical figure.

As with all autobiographies, the question inevitably arises as to how much of the commentary is actually by the author, and how much by the people working with him or her.

One of the two people most directly involved with True Compass is Jonathan Karp, Kennedy’s editor at Twelve Books publishing house (the other was Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Powers).

In a September 2009 National Public Radio interview with Terri Gross, Karp stated that most of the books’ content came from Kennedy’s personal diaries and notes, and from interviews with the senator at the University of Virginia, part a remarkable long-term project on the American presidency.

These interviews took place over several years, as part of an oral history project about the senator’s life.

Perhaps the guiding feature of that life, noted by many observers, near and far, was the centrality of family, and this centre and network from it permeated every aspect of his existence, and, one sees, virtually every chapter of this book.

The love and respect Senator Kennedy had for his parents, the near-hero worship of his three older  brothers Joseph Jr, John (“Jack) and Robert (“Bobbie), the closeness of the nine siblings, these were some of the family-centered elements, archaic and intimate, that would sustain Kennedy through the tragedies that cratered his life and career.

The Kennedys reach high. Their achievements were considerable, impressive, and even glorious; their mis-steps frequent, public and too often tragic.

Family meant support but also provided a measure of solace for each in times of despair, the gathering of community to soften the blows as well as share and celebrate joy and successes. As he wrote, “From my vantage point as the youngest of the nine Kennedy children, my family did not so much live in the world as comprise that world.
For Senator Kennedy, his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was the guiding, and abiding, spirit; a troubled and a powerful one.

The elder Kennedy was privately wealthy and a public figure of some influence in business and government during the 1920s and 1930s. Joe Kennedy could have encouraged his large family to withdraw from the turmoil of American life and enjoy a life of ease and luxury, as many of his achieved station did.

Yet Joe Kennedy wanted more from life and, as True Compass makes clear, wanted much, much more for his privileged children. Service. Complex, demanding, aggressive, Joe Kennedy was caring and concerned; he early provided discipline, advice and example’€of a particular sort’€to all, including this youngest son.

Kennedy recalled a chat he had as a young teenager and well before Joe’s death in 1969. His father said, “You can have a serious life or a nonserious life, Teddy. I’ll still love you whichever choice you make. But if you decide to have a nonserious life, I won’t have much time for you. You make up your mind.

It did not take the future senator long to make his choice.

The political cause which may well come to define Ted Kennedy’s legacy is his long struggle for a national health care system, and the current national debate on that issue owes much to his advocacy for such a system.

His interest in the subject goes back to his high school years at Milton Academy, where Senator Kennedy participated in a debate on national health insurance. That interest was later heightened when, in 1961, even as he thought about running for the US Senate, Kennedy worked on the Cancer Crusade project with Dr. Sidney Farber of Boston, a pioneer in children’s cancer research.

As Kennedy wrote, “This experience was a cornerstone of my interest in health care matters throughout my Senate career. His passion on this subject comes through again and again in this memoir.

True Compass is many books in one, dignified political autobiography; ethnic (Boston Irish) commentary; local, state and national history; legislative roadmap; political science, US Senate in the latter half of the 20th century; American political portrait gallery.

The book, however, may be at its best when Kennedy shares behind-the-scene vignettes, thoughtful insider accounts of and judgments upon significant events, Kennedy family experiences, and politicians, large and small, international and, particularly, national.

One of many such fascinating moments concern the night John Kerry’s 2004 bid for the presidency slipped away, as the discouraging Ohio election results made their way to Boston in the early morning hours.

Heartsick, Kennedy and his (second) wife Vicki came, unannounced, to Kerry’s Beacon Hill, Louisburg Square residence about 2:30 am where, when asked how he was doing, Kerry simply stated, “There are so many things I wanted to do for this country. Kennedy was struck by the defeated candidate’s lack of anger or bitterness, and Kerry’s poignant sadness over the lost opportunity to move the country in what both believed a more positive and progressive direction. 

Even his most bitter opponents would likely agree that Ted Kennedy had the ability to work with politicians who held very different views. One recent example is Kennedy’s willingness to work closely with George W Bush on the No Child Left Behind  education bill in 2001. As he wrote, this bill was “flawed but necessary (and) was itself a child of bipartisanship.

‘ËœYou can have a serious life or a nonserious life, Teddy. I’ll still love you whichever choice you make. But if you decide to have a nonserious life, I won’t have much time for you. You make up your mind.’

An earlier  example of this bipartisanship involved the powerful Mississippi Senator James Eastland, from whom the first term senator would receive his initial committee assignments in 1963.

Eastland was and had long been a strong supporter of racial segregation, and this posed a genuine moral dilemma for Kennedy. Ultimately, as Kennedy wrote, “my decision regarding Senator Eastland…took strength from the concluding phrase of Lincoln’s first inaugural address…I decided to put my faith in ‘Ëœthe better angels of our nature.’…I worked with Senator Eastland; in fact the two of us became friends.

Time and again throughout his career, Kennedy would work with any politician to advance legislation that Senator Kennedy felt would benefit the people’s best interest. Few politicians have done so with such consistency, if not always with ultimate success.

At another point in time, in the aftermath of the murder of both Kennedy brothers, Senator Kennedy’s  frustration with President Jimmy Carter in the mid-1970s provides an intriguing window on a troubled political relationship and a difficult political time for the nation, recoiling from the excesses of one kind of strong political leadership (Nixon) and on the edge, in-between as it were, another (Reagan).

Kennedy believed Carter saw him as a potential rival for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination, even though Kennedy had stated his intention not to run.
From that point on, the senator  wrote, he was,puzzlingly changeable in his manner towards me, a trait that would continue cordial one moment…and callous the next, as when he offered me and my aides the use of his official airplane for our flight to the University of Georgia at Athens’€and then withdrew the offer on the morning of the talk…

Throughout the Carter years, then, Kennedy’s  impatience grew around many liberal causes, especially because of the President’s failure to follow through on his health care promises. True Compass succinctly underscores the divide: “In fact, health care and health insurance were the issues that damaged our relations beyond repair. This policy split helped lead to Kennedy’s failed 1980 challenge to Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In any case, whatever presidential aspirations Senator Kennedy may have had were possibly doomed some ten years earlier by the 1969 Chappaquiddick ( Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts ) tragedy. After an evening party on the island with political aides, Kennedy left with a young woman guest, Mary Jo Kopechne, to drive her to the ferry back to Edgartown.

In the darkness, Kennedy’s car veered off a narrow bridge and into the shallow waters. Ms. Kopechne drowned, and it took a confused and frightened Kennedy many hours before reporting the tragedy to the authorities.

The senator’s subsequent explanation that he attempted to rescue her, that his judgment was impaired by the concussion he suffered in the accident, and that he rushed back to the party to get help, may all be true.

However it really was, the perception of an irresponsible politician, perhaps inebriated at the wheel, and more concerned with potential political damage than with the fate of his ill-fated passenger, all have clouded Ted Kennedy’s image ever since.

Readers will give these pages regarding Chappaquiddick close attention, and re-readings. As to Kennedy’s thoughts on the tragedy, he has written, “I am not proud of these hours. My actions were inexcusable…I was afraid. I was overwhelmed. I made terrible decisions…she lost her life in an accident when I was at the wheel. I’ve had to live with that guilt for forty years.

If Kennedy returned to that incident in his thoughts, he also returned to it in speech and the written word. Decades after Chappaquiddick, he stated in a 1991 speech that,
I recognize my own shortcomings’€the faults in the conduct of my private life…I believe that each of us as individuals must not only struggle to make a better world, but to make ourselves better too, and in this life those endeavors are never finished.

Some might, perhaps, view Senator Kennedy’s unceasing advocacy for national health insurance and civil rights and laboring women and men, for the elderly, the poor, the uninsured, and for the underdog, as part of an “atonement for his personal shortcomings and mistakes.

Perhaps. Though honest historians will note that advocacy, of course, pre-dates Chappaquiddick, and continued long, and stronger still, as the years from Mary Jo Kopechne’s death dimmed in the memory of others.

In an era when the word “liberal was (and is) often used as a pejorative by both Republicans and some more conservative Democrats and Independents, Ted Kennedy swam against the tide, proudly calling himself a liberal.

His willingness to take such a public stand, to make’€and hold’€such an identification was remarkably consistent.

This took a political courage that not all politicians possess. More than just his words, Senator Kennedy’s immense legislative efforts mirrored the term “liberal in its most idealistic and progressive meaning.  

During the Reagan presidency, Kennedy bemoaned the fact that many colleagues he viewed as fellow liberals began to move rightward, tacking to the prevailing political winds. Nonetheless, the senator’€with True Compass as documentation’€tirelessly worked to maintain federal funding for health, education and other progressive programs under savage attack by the knowing budget-slashing policies of the Reagan administration.

To his detractors, Ted Kennedy was a radical, a leftist, an ultra-liberal riddled with moral imperfection and self-serving excuses for his own failures.

A close reading of True Compass may provide facts and figures, quotes and illustration of those very human limitations and even failures of moral vision. Yet for many others, fair-minded readers, and not only those who view him as a true progressive and a man of great humanity,  Senator Edward M Kennedy’s legacy can be seen the simplest of terms.
Where? In the measurable societal advances’€in civil and human rights, opportunities for women, health care, the elderly and the poor. In the lives of the little known and less understood, those without voice, those unable to reach a ballot box much less cast a ballot. Those struggles for societal advances which have taken place over the course of Senator Kennedy’s long career, and to a great extent, because of that career.

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