Book Review: 'True Compass' by Edward M. Kennedy

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 20, 2009


A Memoir

By Edward M. Kennedy

Twelve. 532 pp. $35

Like "The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant," Ted Kennedy's "True Compass" was written in the last months of its author's life as he struggled against an unknown deadline imposed by terminal cancer. Like Grant, Kennedy sought to be modest about the successes in his long public life and honest about the failures. Like Grant's, his memoir has been published soon (if not, in fact, with unseemly haste) after its author's death to a flurry of attention and impressive sales, exceeded at the moment only by the latest amusement from Dan Brown.

Beyond these, resemblances are difficult to come by. "True Compass" is an engaging and at times moving book, but like virtually all political autobiographies these days, it has the air of having been written by committee. Grant did have the assistance of researchers as he plumbed his memory for details of his service in the Mexican and Civil Wars, but he wrote the book himself, in longhand, and it is an American classic. "True Compass," by contrast, was cobbled together from oral histories, notebooks that Kennedy kept over the years and extensive interviews. It is not always possible to tell where Kennedy's voice ends and that of his capable collaborator, Ron Powers, begins.

Thus "True Compass" is at its core a celebrity autobiography, far better than most examples of the genre but the creation at least as much of the ghostly hands behind it as of the man whose name graces its cover. One need only read the acknowledgments at its conclusion to understand that (as Kennedy says of one of his collaborators) many people's "talents added immeasurably to the work" and that it was "enhanced and improved" by these and others. Thus the reader will do best to approach it not as a true memoir but as what Kennedy himself calls a "project."

I go on about this because I am old-fashioned and expect memoirs actually to be written by the memoirists themselves, but that having been said, "True Compass" is a good book. It bogs down, as virtually all memoirs by political figures do, when it turns to the dreary business that so fascinates those in the game: legislative battles, policy debates and foreign travels to meet and greet alien eminences, from popes to prime ministers. Fortunately, though, there really isn't all that much gassing here, because what interests Kennedy most is his family, press-the-flesh politicking and the ups and downs of his own uncommonly interesting life.

Readers looking for gossip mostly will be disappointed. Kennedy openly admits and deeply regrets the well-documented mistakes of his life -- cheating on an exam at Harvard, driving Mary Jo Kopechne into the water at Chappaquiddick, ending his first marriage in divorce, aiding and abetting younger Kennedys in misbehavior at Palm Beach -- but he would have us understand that he persevered through the pain these brought to others and the shame they inflicted on himself. His apologies (for that's what they are) are heartfelt and colored by an awareness that he learned from his mistakes and profited by those lessons. After the assassination of his brother Robert in 1968, he fell into the depths:

"In the months and years after Bobby's death, I tried to stay ahead of the darkness. I drove my car at high speeds; I drove myself in the Senate; I drove my staff; I sometimes drove my capacity for liquor to the limit. . . . I generally managed to keep my public duties and my private anguish separated. Whatever excesses I invented to anesthetize myself, I could almost always put them aside in my role as senator. Almost, but not always."

In passages such as this one there can be no mistaking the voice: It is Kennedy himself, speaking with an honesty that too often eluded him in the moment, most notably in the hours after the accident that killed Kopechne, when he tried to talk his way around it. "I am not proud of these hours," he says now. "My actions were inexcusable. Perhaps I have not made my acknowledgment of this clear enough over the years." Perhaps those who hate all Kennedys generally or this Kennedy specifically will not be satisfied with what he says here, but I say he's right: "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."

Kennedy was an enthusiast, a lover. Though the terrible losses he suffered doubtless contributed to the "desire to escape, to keep moving, to avoid painful memories" with which he was afflicted during the 1970s and '80s, much of what he did was simply true to himself: "I am an enjoyer. I have enjoyed being a senator; 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. I have enjoyed a stiff drink or two or three, and I've relished the smooth taste of a good wine. At times, I've enjoyed these pleasures too much." And I say, let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

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