The Youngest Son

True Compass
A Memoir
Edward M. Kennedy
Twelve, $35, 531 pp.

By the end of his forty-five years in the Senate, Ted Kennedy had come into his own. Even his enemies were willing to concede that the aging lion of liberalism could no longer be pigeon-holed, and dismissed, as the youngest and least talented of the fabled Kennedy brothers. Little Teddy had finally “caught up”—a phrase he repeatedly employs in this memoir—and emerged as a public man in his own right. But how to tell Ted Kennedy’s story in any but a family context? It simply can’t be done. True Compass, presumably in consequence, is more family saga than conventional autobiography—long on evocative incident and short on self-revelation.

The book opens with a sparkling account of Kennedy’s boyhood. The childhood idyll he sketches is almost unbearably poignant, given the tragedies of later years: Cape Cod mornings on horseback with Dad; the Cape house alive with the noise of nine children; his three godlike brothers teaching him to sail. Little Teddy learned early that family is all. His godparents were his older siblings Rosemary and Jack. As late as his teens, Kennedy tells us, he could not imagine himself or any of his siblings marrying: “We would be brothers and sisters, unchanging, forever.” But the family ethos was also intensely competitive—a hard reality for the youngest child. “You can have a serious life or a nonserious life, Teddy,” Kennedy recalls his father saying after a boyhood misdemeanor. “I’ll still love you whichever choice you make. But if you...

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About the Author

Leslie Woodcock Tentler, author of Catholics and Contraception: A History, is professor of history at the Catholic University of America.