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BOOK REVIEW

'True Compass' by Edward M. Kennedy

A graceful memoir by the late Massachusetts senator offers not only a candid assessment of his triumphs and failures, but also a portrait of his extraordinary family.

September 16, 2009|Tim Rutten

True Compass A Memoir

Edward M. Kennedy

Twelve: 532 pp., $35

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"The graveyards of the world," Charles De Gaulle once said, "are filled with indispensable men."

The eloquent shrug of Gallic irony aside, the living do walk away, even from the graves of the great and good, and history -- which is life in the aggregate -- simply goes on. Yet it does no justice to the living or the dead to pretend that some losses do not diminish us in ways that impoverish our collective experience and strip away a bit of life's savor.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's recent death was such a loss, and "True Compass," his touchingly candid, big-hearted and altogether superb memoir, demonstrates precisely why. Completed in the shadow of the senator's own mortality, this is a book whose clarity of recollection and expression entitles it to share in the lineage established by America's first great memoir of public life -- "The Autobiography of U.S. Grant," which he wrote while himself dying of cancer.

There are, of course, fundamental differences: The former president and Union commander was a 19th century man setting down a public life; Kennedy is very much a man of our time, open to exploring the interplay of his inner and outer lives. Grant wrote his autobiography; although Kennedy was a devoted diarist whose natural gifts as a storyteller and as a sharp, painterly observer shine through every page, he was ably assisted not only by the writer -- and Twain biographer -- Ron Powers, but also by his wife, Vicki Reggie, and a variety of scholars, particularly those associated with the University of Virginia's oral history project.

All the Kennedy brothers were known for their superb staffs -- Teddy, most of all.

In the weeks leading up to Monday's publication of "True Compass," much of the obvious "news" in this book was leaked to the press, particularly his bitter regrets over his "inexcusable" behavior during the Chappaquiddick tragedy, the night of heavy drinking that resulted in rape allegations against one of his nephews, and the failure of his first marriage. What's far more remarkable about this memoir is its capacious and generous spirit.

In some sense, conscious of the fact that the three older brothers he so deeply admired never lived to set down their own recollections, the youngest Kennedy brother has written a portrait of his extraordinary family, as well as an account of his own eventful life. There's something extraordinary -- and deeply affecting -- about the affection expressed for Joe and Rose Kennedy, despite a childhood lived under circumstances which, while economically privileged, many today would consider harsh, demanding and, in ways, even abusive. Yet no word of reproach escapes the youngest son, who loved them both to the end. There's a section on his maternal grandfather, the legendary Boston mayor Honey Fitz, that political junkies will savor. The colorful, canny old man's influence on Ted long has been underestimated, and many of the gifts that made the senator so effective and well-liked on both sides of the aisle descended through the Fitzgerald line and through careful observation of the old fox at work. As Kennedy writes, "His simple bequest to me has been more precious than any fortune. Love life, and believe in it."

There's that sort of nonpartisan generosity of spirit in Kennedy's appraisal of the presidents with whom he worked. He esteems Lyndon Johnson as the greatest president since Franklin Roosevelt, while lamenting the indelible stain the Vietnam debacle left on his reputation. He clearly disliked Jimmy Carter, whom he charges with a pettiness and the genuine politician's greatest sin -- a failure "to listen." He found Ronald Reagan gracious and charming and remained Nancy's fast friend, admired both Clintons and enjoyed George W. Bush's sense of humor, while finding Laura a first lady of real grace and poise.

There's a wonderful self-appraisal: "I am an enjoyer. I have enjoyed being a senator; I've enjoyed my children and my close friends; I've enjoyed books and music and well-prepared food, especially with a generous helping of cream sauce on the top. I have enjoyed the company of women. I have enjoyed a stiff drink or two or three, and I've relished the smooth taste of a good wine. At times, I've enjoyed these pleasures too much."

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