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Kennedy, Modest and Honest
The late lion of the Senate sums up his life and times.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 20, 2009

TRUE COMPASS

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.

The previous quotation appears at the opening of a chapter entitled "The Woman Who Changed My Life," in which we are introduced to Victoria Reggie, with whom he had "an old-fashioned courtship" in 1991 and '92 -- "We really took the time to know each other and we grew very close. As the months went on, I realized that I loved this woman very deeply and that my love for her was overcoming all the defenses I'd built up in myself against the potential heartbreak of marrying again" -- and whom he married in July 1992. The 17 years of their marriage seem to have been intensely happy, and he writes about his love for her with an affecting openness.

No one will be surprised that Kennedy writes with equal openness about his love for his older brothers. As the runt of the large and boisterous family, born in 1932, he didn't know his brother Joe well but was (of course) grief-stricken by his death in combat in World War II. Still, the deaths of Jack and Bobby are the ones that haunted him. Jack "was more than a revered older brother to me. He was almost a second father." His "capacity for playfulness and laughter" was "a gift -- to him, but also to all of us around him," and "his laughter is among the things I miss the most about him to this day." As for Bobby, he had a keen sense of humor, though of a "self-deprecating" sort; "loyalty was one of [his] greatest virtues"; he "lived and made decisions in the moment and not in the cold, calculating way that some critics have tried to attribute to him"; he was a man of "conviction, compassion, courage, and eloquence."

What may surprise some readers -- it certainly surprised me -- is the depth of Kennedy's love for his father. Joe Kennedy was a certifiable tough cookie -- a ruthless businessman, a compulsive philanderer -- and his son glosses over these aspects of his life; the name of Gloria Swanson, the actress who was Joe's mistress for many years, is not to be found here. Instead we have Joe Kennedy as loving father -- "Dad could be stern, but he not only loved us; he showed us all a deep respect. He always kissed us when we came home. Not many fathers kissed their children back then" -- and a source of support and wise counsel:

"In the long hours and days and years, my father has been there to turn me around and send me back to do what is necessary. . . . I can envision him now, striding toward me, looking me straight in the eye, his handshake firm, his laugh wholehearted. I grew up eager not to disappoint him, determined never to meet any challenge in a half-hearted way, ultimately confident that if he knew I had done my best, he would -- even if things turned out badly -- give me what amounted to his benediction:

" 'After you have done your best, then the hell with it.' "

He has rather less to say about his mother, Rose. Clearly he loved her, as did all her children, but she seems to have been a tad on the dotty side, especially as she grew older, and one does wonder how seriously he took her. Still, she was very much a part of the family, and the family was everything. "We were just incredibly close, all of us," he writes, "through all our younger years and after. And even though the Cape house was our base, and you'd think we would be restless to get away from it now and then, explore other places, that was not the case. Our whole lives were centered on this one place." They had tons of money, but "Dad never wanted us to flaunt our wealth," and though he lived a life of great privilege, Kennedy reached out to "people who are facing injustice or pain," and this came from the heart.

My emphasis in the paragraphs above has been on Kennedy himself and his family, because it is in the passages dealing with these that "True Compass" is at its best. Among the other things to savor are his accounts of politicking ("Politics and public service were in my blood. The euphoria of campaigning was almost an end in itself"), a tart portrait of Jimmy Carter and a bemused one of Ronald Reagan, and numerous passages in which he calls forth his passionate love of sailing and the sea. In these passages the reader does not question whose voice he is hearing. It is the voice of Ted Kennedy, a flawed man and in his way a great one.

yardleyj@washpost.com

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