From the Depths, a Life Story
Kennedy Worked With a Sense of Urgency and the Full Weight of History

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

The books arrived on the day he died, two brown boxes tightly packed. The publication date had been moved up twice, the last time so that the senator could feel the weight of his complex life in his hands, read the words that had brought him to tears, and know for sure that he had achieved his last goal: leaving a rich record for history.

But it was not to be.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was too weak to get up on Aug. 25, the first time he remained in bed since being diagnosed with a brain tumor last year. So the boxes sat unopened on the floor of his summer retreat by the sea, the anchor he writes about so eloquently. The liberal lion from Massachusetts died later that evening, never able to touch the finished 500-page memoir he had worked on for a half-century.

Now it is left to others to fill in the blanks and explain how reams of contemporaneous notes and diaries, a thousand pages of transcripts from an oral history project, and a dozen intense sessions with a collaborator and the publisher all came together. "True Compass" is officially published Monday with a first printing of 1 million copies. Another million books are on the way.

"This is really the first time we get the story of the Kennedys from the inside," said political historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wrote a seminal book on the family titled "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys." "We never had memoirs from Jack and Bobby, and this is as close a look at the inter-dynamics of a family that dominated our consciousness and our country. . . . Beyond that, it's a portrait of himself that is so much more reflective and honest than we normally get from politicians."

An exclusivity deal with "60 Minutes" allows CBS's premier magazine show to be the first to officially launch the book during its broadcast Sunday evening. There is a six-minute video of Kennedy -- taped last February -- talking about the book and his life.

"There's nothing surer than a North Star," Kennedy says wistfully on the video, his hands slightly trembling. "It doesn't vary, it doesn't change. It's constant. The idea of a compass. And following the directions of the compass, and staying true to its direction makes sense to me. What I've tried to do in the U.S. Senate is to be true to the things which have been important in my life."

According to interviews with those who have read the work closely, there emerges an intimate self-accounting from one of the most famous men in the world. Never before publicly reflective about the tragedies and scandals that enveloped him, Kennedy reveals how he struggled with despair after the assassinations of his brothers.

He called "inexcusable" his scandalous behavior after driving his car off a bridge at Chappaquiddick in 1969, causing the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a passenger in the car. For the first time, he talks deeply about his Roman Catholic faith, and how his guiding light has been Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, generally interpreted as ensuring salvation to those who help "the least" among us. He takes responsibility for some of his excesses and bad judgments, but adds that tabloid reports of his drinking and carousing were at times simply false.

Those involved in the process of pulling together the history describe it as a fascinating and arduous endeavor, placed on a fast track after Kennedy fell ill. Kennedy for decades kept meticulous notes on most of the important events in his life -- from meeting presidents to popes, and has been involved in an oral history project for the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

In addition, Jonathan Karp, president and editor of Twelve books, a division of Hachette, participated in a dozen Kennedy debriefing sessions with collaborator Ron Powers. There were very long days of talking and taping in Washington, Florida and Hyannis Port, Mass., interrupted by lunch and naps for Kennedy. "We had his voice. We needed someone to help tell the story and that's what Ron did," Karp said.

One day at lunch, Kennedy asked Karp how he thought the sessions were going. "I said I thought they were going well, that the stories were great. 'What I don't understand is how you dealt with all the loss,' " Karp recalls responding.

A few hours later, Kennedy came back to Karp. "I've been thinking about what you said," Kennedy said. "I think the reason I have been so restless in my life is that I have been trying to stay ahead of the darkness, to just keep moving to stay ahead of the despair."

Karp says there was only one time Kennedy openly wept.

"We were talking about family and how it fell to him to inform his father about JFK's death," said Karp, referring to Joseph P. Kennedy, who already had suffered a stroke. "The senator began describing the day to us and going up to his father's room -- and then he broke down in tears. He couldn't continue. What was so striking to me was that the event was still so raw for him."

Ted Kennedy Jr. told "60 Minutes" that reading the book has been emotional for him. "What I think I would like this country to understand about my dad -- that even though he really felt he needed to hold it together throughout some really difficult experiences, he was kind of able to let it out in this book," Kennedy Jr. says.

Referring to a passage in the book, the younger Kennedy said he was struck by what Joseph Kennedy said to his youngest child: "Teddy, you can live a serious life or a nonserious life. I'll love you just the same, whatever you choose. But, you know what? I'm a busy guy. And I'm gonna do everything I can to help you. But you have to make that choice.

"My father had the same conversation with me . . . about our lives and really our obligation to really make something of ourselves," Kennedy Jr. said. ". . . Yes, bad things have happened to us. But we've been given incredible advantages."

Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, who sold the book after a competitive auction, said that he had talked to Kennedy about the possibility of doing a memoir for years, but it was only a couple of years ago when he came back and said he was ready. Barnett said there were no explicit conversations about how candid Kennedy planned to be, but in meetings with publishers it became clear that he intended for this to be an insightful and informative historical work.

During their first meeting, Karp said, it was Kennedy who offered that his objective was to write an honest transcript of his life, assuring the publisher that he would be forthright about everything, including sensitive topics such as Chappaquiddick.

Vicki Kennedy, the senator's wife of 18 years, was an integral part of the process, said several sources.

"I don't think he could have done this without her by his side. He makes clear that she loved him for himself, not what he had accomplished," Goodwin said. "And clearly, knowing that he did not have long to live freed him to be more open."

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