There are plenty of light moments in Edward M. Kennedy’s posthumous memoir, True Compass, which was released Monday. His austere father suggests that driving a car with a horn that sounds like a mooing cow may not be the best choice for a young man seeking to make a name for himself. (“Who the hell does he think he is?” Joseph Kennedy Sr., wonders, worried about what people would think.)
But Kennedy’s father challenged him to live a serious life, and he did. And it is in dealing with those serious challenges—and times of real tragedy—that provide perhaps the best measure of the man, and how he lived. Here are some of the most moving and surprising moments in his memoir:
Ninth of NineWe competed in every conceivable way: at touch football, at sailing, at skipping rocks, and seeing whose seashell could float the farthest out to sea…Competition, of course, is the route to achievement in America. As I think back to my three brothers, and about what they had accomplished before I was even out of my childhood, it sometimes has occurred to me that my entire life has been a constant state of catching up…I don’t mean that I felt envious of any of them: I loved and respected every single one. I mean that they set an extraordinarily high standard for living a life in general, and in particular in public service. So from the very beginning I started really behind the eight-ball. My brothers and sisters were already on a very fast track. I was the ninth of nine. (Page 22)
The Death of Brother Joseph P. Kennedy, 1944“There will be no crying in this house.” Joe Kennedy’s dictum to his family served his youngest son well through more than his share of tragedy. True to his word, when Navy chaplains delivered the news of Joe Kennedy Jr.’s death to the family in Hyannis, Jack suggested that instead of crying, they all go sailing. “Joe wouldn’t want us sitting here crying,” my brother said. “He would want us to go sailing. Let’s go sailing. Teddy, Joey [Gagnan, a cousin], get the sails. We’re going sailing.” (Page 86)
John F. Kennedy’s Death, 1963I asked [John F. Kennedy adviser Milt] Gwirtzman to drive to the White House. There, I made myself instruct an aide to telephone Hyannis Port, and waited the terrible few seconds before the ordeal of speaking the unspeakable. My mother came on the line. She had heard. My father, in bed on the second floor, had not. Someone had to tell him face-to-face. I told Mother that I would do it…By the time we arrived, the anticipation of what lay ahead had burned through any numbness and replaced it with dread. I fought it by launching myself out of the plane, through the front doorway, and up the stairs to Dad’s bedroom. His eyes were closed. I would let him have his last peaceful sleep. The television set near his bed caught my eye. I lunged at the connecting wires and ripped them from the wall. (Pages 209-210)
His Brother’s ReputationLet me acknowledge here that a loyal and loving brother cannot provide a dispassionate view of John Kennedy’s presidency. Much has been written about his personal life. A lot of it is bullshit. All of it is beyond the scope of my direct experience. There were conversational boundaries in our family and we respected them. For example, I had no idea of how serious Jack’s health problems were while he was alive. It would never have occurred to us to discuss such private things with each other. (Pages 399-400)
• The book’s publisher, Jonathan Karp, talks to The Daily Beast’s Samuel P. Jacobs about why the memoir isn’t political.Robert F. Kennedy’s Death, 1968The months following Bobby’s death are a blur in my memory…I would go and visit my father on the Cape for a couple of days, and then I would go sailing. Sometimes I sailed alone. Sometimes I sailed with a friend. Sometimes I sailed for long distances.
Sometimes I sailed to Maine. I surrendered myself to the sea and the wind and the sun and the stars on these voyages. I let my mind drift, when it would, from my sorrows to a semblance of the momentous joy I have always felt at the way a sailboat moves through the water. I love sailing in the day, but there’s something about sailing at night. (Page 273-274)
Chappaquiddick, 1968 My actions were inexcusable. Perhaps I have not made my acknowledgment of this clear enough over the years. And perhaps I have not fully acknowledged the following points as well: I was afraid. I was overwhelmed. I made terrible decisions. Even though I was dazed from my concussion, exhaustion, shock, and panic, I was rational enough to understand that the accident would be devastating to my family…Mary Jo Kopechne was an innocent young woman who had done nothing more than been loyal to my brother and his cause. And she lost her life in an accident when I was at the wheel. I’ve had to live with that guilt for 40 years. But my burden is nothing compared to her loss and the suffering her family had to endure…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. (Page 291-292)
Teddy Jr. Gets Cancer, 1973 I’d heard and delivered more than my share of bad news in my life, but this was the worst of the worst. My 12-year-old started crying, and I was fighting back emotion with every ounce of my being. I held Teddy in my arms and told him that I’d be there with him, that we’d face this problem together, that surgery would take care of the problem so he could be well, that we would have many happy days still ahead. I needed to believe those words as much as he did. In the end, he accepted the news bravely, but I’m not sure that his young mind could truly absorb what it really would mean to lose his leg above the knee. (Page 308)
Learning About Health Care, 1973While Teddy [Jr.] was asleep I wandered the halls and the waiting rooms, and sought out other parents, who, like me, were keeping vigil over terribly ill sons and daughters…These were most mostly working people: salesman, secretaries, laborers, teachers, taxi drivers. Their long hours and modest savings allowed them to raise their families comfortably and with hope—until catastrophe struck. It was in these conversations that the inhumanity of our health-care system truly hit home to me. We shared common ground in our anxieties about whether our children would live or die, or survive with debilitating frailties. But for my new friends, this was only one terrible part of a larger nightmare. (Page 310)
Presidential Non-Candidacy, 1976Many of the friends, aides, and followers who envisioned an Edward Kennedy presidency were basing their hopes on a romantic and ultimately irrelevant model. Whether consciously or not, they seemed enthralled by the dream that the dash and vaulting aspirations of the early 1960s would return again. My actual vision of the presidency, to the extent that I turned it over in my mind, was a good deal more complex and less romantic. It was and remains a given that my brothers established a soaring standard for public service, and that their standard to a great extent has defined my life and my aims. I have always measured myself by that standard. Jack and Bobby were my heroes. (Page 343)
President CarterJimmy Carter baffled me. He baffled many potential allies in his own party—Hubert Humphrey, Ed Muskie, and George McGovern found themselves as unwelcome as did I in their overtures to campaign on his behalf—but I believed then and now that he reserved a special place in his animus toward me…I did notice that he was puzzlingly changeable in his manner toward me, a trait that would continue. (Page 353)
Keeping Secrets in WashingtonI asked Vicki to marry me—and she said yes—during the performance of La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on January 14, 1992. We decided to keep our engagement secret quiet for a while, while we worked out the plans for our wedding…Everyone was asked to keep the wonderful news to themselves, but secrecy was too much to ask of then 6-year-old Caroline [Raclin, Vickie's daughter]. She told only “one person” in her kindergarten class, and he told his parents, who apparently worked for The Washington Post. (Page 427)
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