Friday, February 19, 2010


True Compass: A Memoir

I was really excited to read this book - as we'll never be able to have autobiographies of JFK or RFK, this is as close as we'll get. Teddy'll always be my Senator, and he's been a hero to liberals, but I wanted to gain another window into his older brothers in addition to an accounting of his long life. It was an enjoyable and informative read. He didn't paint over the bad parts, dealt honestly with happy and sad times, and I think managed to say some interesting things while thinking over an extraordinary existence. It's not often that people are able to spend a year writing their memoirs when then know they're going to die. Certainly even fewer with the life of Edward Kennedy.

I'd heard lots of stories about his parents (pushy, demanding, abusive, supportive), but I think this sums up the way he viewed it:
"Once, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, Dad called me into his room for a chat. I must have done something that prompted the conversation, but I don't remember what it was. But he used phrases so concise and vivid that I can remember them word for word nearly sixty-five years later: 'You can have a serious life or a nonserious life, Teddy. I'll still love you whichever choice you make. But if you decide to have a nonserious 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."
Wow! That's cruel, loving, and hilarious honesty, and I can understand why Teddy Kennedy became the man he was. His mom sounded great along those lines too - lots of trips to the museums and pop quizzes in arithmetic on the way there and back.

The stories about Jack and Bobby helped complement what I'd learned in books like The Last Campaign - I really need to see if there are some well-reviewed RFK biographies.

I'd provide more of a summary but that would be silly for all he's seen. It was helpful to go through the important political events of the last 50 years through his eyes, even the things I thought I knew about. One anecdote about Reagan might prove exemplary. He and several other Senators walked into the Oval Office to discuss trade quotas and protective tariffs for domestic shoe production. Massachusetts, Missouri, and several other states had a strong local cottage industry making all kinds of shoes, and foreign manufacturing was threatening livelihoods across the country. When Kennedy started to raise the point and explain what might be done, Reagan cut him off and asked him what kind of shoes he was wearing. Kennedy was thrown off track and told him, and Reagan launched into literally a half hour's talk about what kind of shoes he liked, how his dad sold shoes, where in the country you could find the best shoes, how to polish your shoes so they'll keep their shine, and so on. The Senators were floored and never got the discussion back to where they wanted it, and soon the meeting was over. The Senators then had to go out to the cameras and have a press conference about what was not talked about in the Oval Office. Reagan had no idea and no interest.

Kennedy manages to write without a My Life-ish laundry list of everyone he's ever met, and also without a stream of talking points in pablum form. I learned a lot, and loved the conversational tone. So sad he's gone.


  1. I read two really good biographies of RFK -- one by Arthur Schlesinger (which is clearly a little biased) and the other is by Evan Thomas. I have both -- you can borrow whenever you want.

  2. I just finished this book and loved the entire experience of reading it. It felt like a series of intimate discussions with one of my very favorite people to ever exist in politics. I've read so much about Teddy and his family, it was nice to finally hear his true voice. Along with that I appreciated him coming clean on a number of key events he hardly ever talked about.

    We should get together for brunch some time and discuss this book.