Lessons from Kennedy’s ‘True Compass’

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By Rick Howell

Ted Kennedy‘s “True Compass” would be poignant for one fact alone if there wasn’t so much else to recommend it. This Kennedy brother, after all, was the only one who lived long enough to write a memoir.

    Pathos and tragedy accompanied every step of success his family ever recorded. For the prominent role they achieved in American history, they paid a very bloody and very sad price.

    Ted Kennedy started writing this book before he was diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually kill him. When the first copies arrived at his home last August, he was too sick to look at them.

    It almost reads as more of a family memoir than a political one, because there’s one thing that remains unshakeable about the Kennedys: Above all else, they’re a family that sticks together come what may.

    That passion sometimes rendered the author less able to confront certain realities about his family’s story. Teddy writes that his father simply thought that America and Britain weren’t “ready to fight” the Nazis. But he omits any mention of the remark that ended Kennedy Sr.’s time as ambassador to the Court of St. James. Democracy, he said, “was finished in Britain and probably in America, too.”

    That attitude was simply too defeatist for both the Brits and the Americans. But overall, Teddy’s account of being his father’s son is a touching and memorable one. Joe Kennedy made a lot of enemies; but there’s no doubt that he loved his children and, by way of his own fortune, he gave them opportunities most children never get.

    Ted Kennedy’s lifelong lesson in grief began early. He was only 13 when the oldest brother, Joe Jr., was killed in World War II. Sister Kathleen was the next to die too young in 1948.

    He was presiding over the Senate on Nov. 22, 1963, a day when all Americans of a certain age remember where they were. For years, he writes, he was unable to actually face the depths of the grief he felt.

    Teddy almost lost his own life in a 1964 plane crash. Then, in 1968, Bobby’s assassination set him on another long path of grief and some reckless behavior of his own.

    About Chappaquidick, he adds nothing new. But he does speak honestly about the penance (a serious notion to Catholics) he felt he had to do for the rest of his life. It was, after all, an accident, and he had to live with it all of his days. But he knew his own sense of guilt and grief couldn’t match the grief of the victim’s family and friends.

    He only started to become a truly great senator after his own disastrous run for the presidency in 1980. In the 1990s, amidst a supposed conservative ascendancy, Ted Kennedy gave energy and life to the liberal resistance. He never thought the country had truly “turned right.”

    The book is generous about everyone he met, even his political opponents. He only has harsh criticism for Jimmy Carter, whom he felt had no clue about leadership. He liked Ronald Reagan, but thought him a well-meaning simpleton, more fond of telling stories than working hard on issues.

    His fight for universal health care took a big triumph after his death. It’s a shame he wasn’t here to see it. He was one of the most articulate critics of the war in Iraq, just as his brother, Bobby, had been about the Vietnam War.

    In fact, his own legacy could be summed up the way he summed up Bobby’s in 1968: He saw suffering and tried to heal it; he saw wrong and tried to right it; he saw war and tried to stop it.

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Rick Howell, a Bedford native, can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.