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09.15.09

Teddy Reveals All, Almost

Kennedy biographer Adam Clymer on True Compass' revelations (Lyndon Johnson blamed the FBI for JFK's death) and omissions (Chappaquiddick's effect on his career).

True Compass, for anyone not a confirmed hater of Edward M. Kennedy, is a remarkable book. Those of us who interviewed him over his 47-year career, and I did 21 interviews just in writing his biography, never heard him talk as freely as he writes in this memoir about his joys and sorrows, his love for his brothers, his parents, his children, and his wife Vicki, and his opinions about the presidents he dealt with. (He finds good things to say about all except Jimmy Carter.) As he explains, “I rarely speak in public about personal matters. It’s something my generation was taught not to do.”

The abundance of personal recollection makes him more real than I think any previous account of his life managed to do.

Two other things he was taught not to do reverberate through the utter lack of self-pity in a book that chronicles his family’s outsized portion of tragedy. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had two mantras: “there’ll be no crying in this house” and “Kennedys never complain.”

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There are lessons here he has told of before, if in less detail, like his mother’s emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, the verse on his funeral program in which, he wrote, Christ “calls us to care for the least of these among us, and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned. It’s enormously significant to me that the only verse in the Bible about salvation is tied to one’s willingness to act on behalf of one’s fellow human beings.” He doesn’t belabor the point, but from Meals on Wheels to drinking water for Alaskan natives to opening the nation’s borders to immigrants from Africa and Asia, that is his legislative legacy.

But if there was one single passage I wish I had had for my own book, it is this description of what his father said after an early teenage transgression: “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 mind. There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you.”

We know the course he ultimately chose, if not that very day and not without a few relapses. We also know that he was always seeking to catch up with the accomplishments of his elders, and explains that as his motivation for running for the Senate in 1962: “I was ready to step into the public arena alongside these men who were my father and brothers. To be of use. And to catch up.”

true-compass-book-cover
True Compass. By Edward M. Kennedy with collaboration by Ron Powers 532 pages. Twelve. $35. ()

There are only minor nuggets of news, more valuable to historians than to reporters. That Lyndon Johnson blamed the FBI for John F. Kennedy’s death, saying it should have warned the Secret Service about Lee Harvey Oswald. Or Robert Kennedy’s offer to serve as Johnson’s peace negotiator in 1967, a role that would have precluded a presidential candidacy. And he thinks that John F. Kennedy’s growing “qualms about Vietnam” would have led to withdrawal in two or three years if he had not been murdered in 1963.

More interesting are his accounts of meetings at the White House, with Johnson about bombing Vietnam, with Reagan about shoe imports (Reagan filibustered and never got to the issue), and Clinton about gays in the military. For future biographers of Kennedy, there can now be less guesswork and pop psychology. For historians generally, accounts like these, and there are several more, will whet their appetites for the deposit and eventual release from the John F. Kennedy Library of those journals he kept for 50 years and used for the book.

And perhaps the most useful passages are those which explain his run for president—something often described as a dynastic compulsion, not a real desire of his own. “The eras that shaped them had passed,” he wrote. “Jack’s and Bobby’s great legacies inspired me, but cold reason told me that I could not run as their surrogate, nor could I govern according to their templates.” After concluding that Carter was not a good president and did not trust the American people, Kennedy decided to run in 1979, though his explanation of his feeble answer to Roger Mudd on why he could not say why he wanted the office (he had not yet announced his candidacy) reflects the sloppy planning with which his campaign began.

To be sure, this is not a totally satisfying book. There are important elements he could have examined more critically. His father’s support for appeasement before World War II and defeatism about Britain once it started is treated gently—as a failed effort to prevent war or U.S. involvement. And his account of the West Virginia primary of 1960 omits the role of Kennedy money in deciding the outcome, while hailing the pro-Kennedy efforts of Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., who smeared Hubert Humphrey as a draft-dodger.

Highlights of Teddy’s book. He says nothing he has not said before about Chappaquiddick, except to note that he suffered a concussion when he drove off the bridge. The concussion, revealed at the 1970 inquest but never spoken of by Kennedy since, could have affected his memory. Explaining his continued unwillingness to revisit the accident, he wrote, “From my forty-year vantage point, what I am left with now are mostly memories of memories, and even those older memories lack clarity, as records of the time show.” He insists again there was nothing romantic between him and Mary Jo Kopechne, and calls the event “a horrible tragedy that haunts me every day of my life.” His account of his 1980 campaign, while frequently revealing about his motives and feelings, makes no mention of the devastating impact of Chappaquiddick on his candidacy.

And surprisingly for a master lawmaker, his accounts of legislative fights are often episodic. His battles against rollbacks on civil rights in the 1980s, and perhaps his single greatest legislative accomplishment, the Americans with Disabilities Act, are mentioned but only barely. Even though this is not a comprehensive autobiography, some account of the near miss on national health insurance in the Nixon and Ford years, for example, would have been welcome. After all, he calls health care “the great cause of my life,” and even the Nixon-Ford position looks pretty good today.

True Compass tells of the things that mattered to him, from his Catholic faith to the love of his family to the peace he found sailing. The book ends with a tribute to perseverance, the quality he brought to countless bills and issues, but specifically the perseverance of his grandson “Little Teddy,” who struggled at first but ended up winning the August 2008 racing series on the Cape, along with the award for Most Improved Sailor.

Even though he doesn’t offer startling new interpretations of his life, the abundance of personal recollection makes him more real than I think any previous account of his life managed to do.

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Adam Clymer is a former chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times and author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography.