True Compass: A Memoir, by Edward M. Kennedy.

18 May 2014 Written by 
Published in Book Reviews

True Compass: A Memoir, by Edward M. Kennedy. Twelve: Hachette Book Group, New York, 2009. An insider’s view of one of the major political dynasties of the second half of the 20th century, True Compass is the story of the youngest of four sons of a family that has fascinated Americans for half a century. The Kennedys were undeniably a family of privilege. Patriarch Joe Kennedy was an advisor to several Presidents and had great ambitions for his sons, many fulfilled, and many tragically cut short. Edward Moore Kennedy (more commonly called Ted) had great respect for his parents, and often had difficulty living up to his father’s expectations. At various times during his life, disappointing his parents caused him great personal anguish. As the youngest child, Ted lived trying to follow his brothers’ footsteps most of his adult life. While the faults of his brothers became public posthumously, Ted spent much of his adult life in the shadow of various scandals, a publicly failed marriage, and his involvement in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick in 1969, an episode that likely cost him a chance at the Presidency. The Kennedy legacy is mixed. John and Robert have often been portrayed as saints. Their tragic assassinations popularized their virtues in a state of being forever young, vital, and idealistic. Ted has often been vilified as a devil for his personal indiscretions, often hated by conservatives, and even liberals at times found him “an embarrassment to the cause,” largely due to indiscretions in his personal life. Obviously, the truth is more complex, somewhere between these two extremes. Kennedy suffered many tragedies not related to his often-impulsive love of life. A plane crash in 1964 led to a broken back and months of rehabilitation. His teen-aged son, Teddy, had a leg amputated due to bone cancer. These two episodes strongly influenced his emphasis on health care reform and equity through most of his political career. Despite many personal setbacks, Ted survived his brothers to become the patriarch of this highly political family until his death in 2009. He became a key legislator, skillfully working on issues of great importance, often reaching “across the aisle.” As one of the longest sitting Senators, in later years he became generally revered as the liberal “Lion of the Senate.” His childhood in a prominent and large family of Irish Americans, he (and his brothers) grew up instilled with a strong Catholic faith. The early part of the book provides many clues as to how this background affected all three brothers. The strong family ties and faith instilled from childhood helped him cope with the early death of his brothers and other tragedies, which were often lived out on a very public stage. His early child hood was spent in pre-War England, as his father was Ambassador to Britain. Coming back to the US just as war broke out, his basic education was scattered across schools in several states in the 1940s. His oldest brother, Joe, was a pilot shot down in Europe in World War II. He adored both of his surviving brothers, John, the war hero of PT-109, and especially Robert. Boston and Cape Cod both became home, but many close ties were also made in New York and Florida. Cheating on a Spanish exam at Harvard cost him dearly, leading to forced time off from school with a chance to reapply in two years if he “did something productive with his life” in the meantime. After spending two years in the Army, much of it in Europe during the Korean War, he returned to Harvard. Never an outstanding student, he was more successful the second time. Later in the 1950s, he went to the University of Virginia Law School. He played a key role in helping his brother, John, win re-election as Senator from Massachusetts in 1958, with a large enough margin to launch him into candidacy for President. The success of that campaign led to a major role during the Presidential campaign of 1960, primarily in the Rocky Mountain West. During this campaign, he rode a bronco in a rodeo, and flew through the air off a high ski jump. He was somewhat coerced into both of these activities, with no preparation, all in the line of duty of campaigning for his brother in this hotly contested Presidential race. These campaign experiences and public exposure led to his running for his brother’s unexpired Senate seat that had been held by Governor appointed Benjamin Smith for the 1960-1962 interim, with an election required in 1962 for the final two years of the term which originated in the 1958 election. He was successful and continued to hold the Senatorial seat from Massachusetts for the next 47 years until his death in 2009. Much of the rest of the book focuses on the inner workings of the Senate, his relationships with other Senators from both parties, and of course, the various presidents under which he served. There is much here of interest on the behind-the-scenes working of the Senate and various administrative styles of key players in ten Presidential administrations. In his early years in the Senate, he was especially proud of the great advances in civil rights and health care issues under President Johnson’s Great Society programs, causes that he strongly supported early on and throughout his long political career. A scandal such as Chappaquiddick would likely have brought down most other politicians. However, the Kennedy name, his unabashed liberalism in a liberal state, and good grassroots organization led to his being re-elected in 1970, winning 61% of the vote. While he remained largely an effective Senator promoting liberal causes, this scandal affected his decision not to run for President in 1976, and his limited success in the 1980 Presidential race. His long-failed marriage to Joan Bennett ended in divorce in 1981. This led to a decade during which, “My friends didn’t tell me that my drinking or my private life was getting out of control, but maybe that’s because we were all having too much fun at the time.” Kennedy had a long policy of not responding to rumors in the tabloid press, but he admits, “The downside here, of course, is that rumors and fictions frequently enter the public consciousness as settled fact.” A low point in his career was the hearings on Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court and the highly politicized sexual harassment scandal involving Anita Hill. A largely self-imposed silence was deemed necessary due to his close association with nephew William Smith on the same night he (Smith) became involved in sexual scandal that led to rape charges. It was about this time that he renewed an acquaintance with Vicki Reggie, daughter of old family friends. Much of his renewed and largely effective focus was due to their subsequent marriage, and Vicki did much to help him get his personal life back on track. It is questionable whether he would have succeeded as well in his later political years without her help and support. He gives her a lot of credit for changing his life for the better. Kennedy continued supporting liberal causes throughout the 1990s and on up to the election of Barak Obama. His sense of history of the Senate with its unique, often confusing rules of operation, combined with political skills of working with political adversaries on issues of great importance served him and the country well. Whether one loved Ted Kennedy or despised him, there is much here for anyone interested in the Kennedys or the inner workings of the US Senate. Much is anecdotal, often with self deprecating humor, providing insight into one of the most influential Senators of modern times. With his wife Vicki’s inspirational help, and with skillful writing and editing of Ron Powers and Jonathan Karp, True Compass is a fine political memoir, strongly recommended to anyone with an interest in the Kennedy family and the legacy of the “Lion of the Senate.”

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Roger Chambers

Roger Chambers is a regsitered nurse, working in geriatric nursing for over 30 years. Since 1997 he has tended a large organic garden at his urban home. He has traveled widely in the US and Canada, Europe and Latin America.

He has had several articles in hobby publications on shortwave radio, and several poems in local arts journals and newspapers. An avid fan of birds and the Adirondack Mountains, at present he is largely focused on natural seasonal changes, holidays, and associated local fairs and festivals.

Roger resides in the beautiful Mohawk Valley of Upstate New York.

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