Something to prove

Ted Kennedy’s memoir recounts his achievements and his mission to please his father

Ted Kennedy, injured in a plane carsh, greets his father Joseph outside a Boston hospital in 1964. Ted Kennedy, injured in a plane carsh, greets his father Joseph outside a Boston hospital in 1964. (File/ Associated Press)
By Matthew V. Storin
Globe Correspondent / September 13, 2009

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As a boy, he danced with the future queen of England, received his First Communion from Pope Pius XII, and shook hands with slugger Babe Ruth. As a young man he was nearly killed climbing a mountain, flew airplanes in bad weather, and took his first ski jump on a whim. He pursued life recklessly. His political career - the good and the bad - spanned nearly a half century, including a failed run for president and many historic legislative achievements.

Yet when it came to the final paragraphs of this often touching memoir, Ted Kennedy chose to write about his namesake, his 11-year-old grandson, “Little Teddy,’’ who struggled in 2008 learning how to sail. The grandfather told the boy how he had begun as an eighth string end on the Harvard football team and worked his way up to being a starter. Little Teddy ultimately won an award for “most improved sailor.’’ His grandfather, in what he probably knew would be his last public words, wrote of his own greatest lesson learned: “If you persevere, stick with it, work at it, you have a real opportunity to achieve something.’’

After a life chronicled in tabloid chatter and often vicious editorial cartoons, Kennedy tells his own story here, expansively yet selectively, portraying himself as a dedicated, loving, flesh-and-blood figure who, despite being born well, had to prove himself. And the person, to whom he most had to do that is clearly etched in these pages. It was neither his famous brothers, nor his pious mother, Rose, nor even himself, but his controversial father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.

This is a book that all but the most toxic Kennedy critic could love. But it is no more flawless than its subject. Though he takes responsibility for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick, he says nothing new on the topic. He told The Globe 40 years ago, “I can live with myself,’’ and he apparently did. He does say that his first marriage was, after just a few years, endured for the sake of his and Joan Kennedy’s three children. He concedes forthrightly his drinking and his “exploits as a hell raiser,’’ but offers no details.

Which brings us back to his father. Not the one whose business dealings were from all reports ruthless if not illegal, and whose womanizing was virtually public. No, the one who said to his young child, “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 own mind. There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you.’’ In the entire book, that’s the one quotation in italics. (Kennedy’s collaborator was writer Ron Powers. To this journalist who knew Kennedy, the prose, except for a few writerly transitions, can almost always be imagined in Kennedy’s voice.)

Following a candid first chapter on dealing with the diagnosis of his brain tumor last summer, Kennedy writes evocatively of the years just before World War II that split his family forever - sibblings Joe Jr. dying in combat in 1944 and Kathleen in a plane crash four years later.

Later, there is much substance about his political life. His accounts are richly detailed. As a reporter covering Kennedy decades ago, I learned that he was keeping a diary and knew what a treasure it would someday be. It is. The best insights are perhaps his accounts of Senate maneuverings prior to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, his advocacy for peace in Northern Ireland, the misgivings that he and Robert both had about Vietnam, and the run-up to the latter’s presidential campaign and subsequent murder in 1968. The youngest Kennedy reveals his own fears of being a target, reacting to the sounds of firecrackers or a vehicle’s backfire. “My reaction is self conscious - I know I’m not in danger - but it still cuts through me,’’ he said.

Kennedy reminisces warmly about most of the figures in his public life, save Jimmy Carter. He speaks well of Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Clinton, and sometimes even Richard Nixon. But Carter torpedoed efforts at Kennedy’s most passionate issue, health care reform. He wrote, “President Carter was a difficult man to convince - of anything.’’ Unlike in his personal life, Kennedy is unreconstructed when it comes to his causes, including the 1987 diatribe on “Robert Bork’s America’’ that helped block Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court and is credited with poisoning debates on such nominations ever since. “I knew I was making myself a target by being so heated in my rhetoric, but it was a price I was willing to pay to keep this man off the court.’’

He writes with great affection of dating and marrying the warmly elegant Vicki Reggie. The memoir is dedicated to her.

But before Vicki there was Joe Sr. The youngest child devotes a page to an account of President Kennedy putting off little Caroline in 1961, just after she had run out of her grandparents’ Hyannis Port home to greet him. An aide said he needed a few minutes of the president’s time.

Entering his father’s home, JFK got an icy greeting from the old man, who finally said, “Jack, I know you’re worried about Khrushchev. But let me tell you something. Nothing is going to be more important in your life than how your daughter turns out. And don’t ever forget it.’’ After an awkward silence, as the book recounts, JFK said, “You’re absolutely right, Dad.’’

The tone and message of “True Compass’’ were set long ago.

Matthew V. Storin, editor of The Boston Globe from 1993 to 2001, teaches journalism at the University of Notre Dame.

TRUE COMPASS By Edward M. Kennedy

Twelve, 532 pp., illustrated, $35

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