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Teddy's First 'True Compass' Was Dad, Who Taught Him Not to Cry or Complain

6 years ago
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About a week ago, I was handed a copy of the Ted Kennedy memoir in a sealed, padded envelope. As I carried the package, I could feel the familiar outside edges of a hard cover. Strangely, a thought came that now this still-unseen book was all that was left of this man who had been part of my professional life since 1965.

I mention this because "True Compass" (By Edward M. Kennedy, Hachette Book Group, 532 pp. $35.00) seems to be everything Kennedy had wanted to say about himself for decades, but wouldn't. Whether from a sense of privacy or from being battered in the media, he withheld most parts of his personal story until he knew that most likely it would be read close to the time of his death, or immediately after. Not that the notion of a memoir was new to him. At least since the 70s, I had known, covetously, that he kept a diary of his political life.

As a young reporter for a regional news bureau in Washington, I covered Kennedy on a near-daily basis for five years. Later as a correspondent and editor at The Boston Globe, our worlds occasionally intersected. I found him almost always guarded, someone who talked reluctantly about his family, especially his deceased brothers.

He was most comfortable -- and articulate -- talking about Senate machinations and pending legislation. Even minimally probing questions on his plans or his personal life yielded half sentences and mangled syntaxes. In those early days, it was not uncommon to do an interview that seemed to go reasonably well, only to find that not a single full sentence could be reconstructed from the notes.

"True Compass" is a particular a revelation for its intimate view of his formative years -- especially the influence of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. -- although he claimed to know little of his father's controversial business life and his mistresses, and said that part of his father's life was closed to him. Kennedy, who had a collaborator on the book, author Ron Powers, wrote, "(A)... powerful ethic that Dad taught us was to respect the privacy of others and to ignore whatever disrespect of privacy might come our way."

Joe, Sr. also forbade "crying in this house," Kennedy said. "We have wept only rarely in public. We have accepted the scrutiny and the criticism as the legitimate consequences of prominence in a highly self-aware society. With exceedingly few exceptions, we have refused to complain against the speculation, gossip and slander."

Although Kennedy graciously wrote, in dedicating the book to his wife, Vicki, that she was "my true compass on this voyage," clearly Joe, Sr. filled this role first, more than his siblings or mother, Rose. When Teddy was still quite young, he quotes his father as telling him, "You can have a serious life or a non-serious life, Teddy. I'll still love you whichever choice you make. But if you decide to have a non-serious life, I won't have much time for you. You make up your own mind. There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you." In the entire book, that's the one quotation in italics.

In much of the memoir, Kennedy talks in a selectively revealing style. He slams the door on the sexual adventures of his brother, Jack. He says some of the allegations about JFK were "bullshit," implying emotion not seen anywhere else in the book, most of which is written in his characteristically upbeat humor.

Regarding Chappaquiddick, he does not go beyond what he has said for 40 years. Of his role in the 1991 Palm Beach evening that resulted in rape charges against his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, he says even less. (Smith was acquitted by a jury.) He does forthrightly concede, as he has done before, that his personal life was out of control in the years before Vicki entered it, and gives her credit for providing whatever peace of mind had been missing.

What seems to be an innate recklessness (another inherited family value?) is evident from the tales of his youth. He was nearly killed in a mountain climbing adventure, he went off a ski jump with no previous experience, flew planes as an amateur pilot through dangerous weather conditions, and nearly defied the forces of gravity while driving from the University of Virginia to Washington during his law school days. It almost seems like the family motto should be: To whom much is given, much must be risked.

Some of the family tales are amusing, as when Rose Kennedy, the matriarch who was then more than 100 years old, observed Ted crossing the living room with his tennis racket. "Teddy dear," he recalls her saying, "are you sure that's your racquet? I've been looking for mine."

There also is another lesson from Joe, Sr. to which Teddy gives considerable space: In 1961, shortly before JFK left for the difficult summit in Vienna with Khrushchev, the president was enjoying a few days in Hyannis Port. On his way to dinner at the "main house," Jack Kennedy was greeted joyously by his daughter, toddler Caroline. He took her hand for a bit but turned her over to Teddy as they got to the house, when an aide urgently needed to discuss something.

When the president finally entered the living room, his father had already sat down in the dining room, and everyone sensed something was wrong. JFK went and sat by him. Joe Sr. said, "Jack, I know you're worried about Khrushchev. But let me tell you something. Nothing is going to be more important in your life than how your daughter turns out. And don't ever forget it." After a brief, awkward silence, JFK said, "You're absolutely right, Dad."

This particular lesson from the father is reflected in the youngest Kennedy child as he writes in intimate detail about tending to his son, Teddy Jr., when he lost a leg to cancer, and daughter Kara, who has survived "inoperable" lung cancer.

Historians will revel in the fruit of Kennedy's diaries (and an oral history project by the University of Virginia). In his reviews of presidents he's known personally, Jimmy Carter, whom he ran against in 1980, comes off far worse than even Richard Nixon. Discussing his favorite issue, health care reform, Kennedy writes, "President Carter was a difficult man to convince -- of anything." And despite his brother Bobby's animus toward Lyndon Johnson, and vice versa, Teddy treats LBJ kindly -- as he does Ronald Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes. For political junkies, there is a news story on nearly every page of this book.

He was briefed in private by Earl Warren on the Warren Commission theory of the single gunman in his brother Jack's assassination. He accepts this. He addresses his own fear, and his reaction to loud noises. Sometimes ducking at the sound of firecrackers or a vehicle backfiring, he said, "My reaction is self-conscious -- I know I'm not in danger -- but it still cuts through me," he wrote.

Now the fears of danger and the darts of his critics are beyond him. Interestingly, Kennedy chose to end this book bragging about his 11-year-old grandson, Teddy III, who overcame frustrations to become a good sailor. The elder Kennedy said that the "greatest" lesson he learned in his 77 years was: "If you persevere, stick with it, work at it, you have a real opportunity to achieve something." Which is a telling epitaph for one whose life should have been so advantaged as to need nothing of the kind.

Matthew V. Storin was editor of The Boston Globe from 1993 to 2001. He teaches journalism at the University of Notre Dame.

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