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 decide to have a nonserious life, I won’t have much time for you.... There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you.” The message appears to have resonated with the future senator: he relates the anecdote twice.

That family competition should center on politics, at least for the boys, seems almost preordained. Maternal grandfather “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, to whom Teddy was warmly attached as a boy, had been mayor of Boston and a congressman. Joseph Kennedy Sr. served a controversial term as first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and an even more controversial stint as ambassador to the Court of St. James, in which capacity he brought a six-year-old Teddy to London for a year’s residence in 1938. (He and Bobby danced—reluctantly, one imagines—with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.) Older brother Joe Jr., born in 1915, nursed national political ambitions as a college student, as Jack and Bobby eventually would. Were their choices dictated by Joe Sr., as is still sometimes argued? In Ted Kennedy’s telling, there was no need for that. Political ambition was as cardinal a family virtue as loyalty.

The Second World War brought an end to Teddy’s boyhood idyll. Brothers Joe and Jack joined the Navy, while Teddy became a kind of educational nomad. Due to his mother’s peripatetic habits—she liked to be in Florida during the coldest months—Teddy sometimes attended as many as three schools a year. Boarding school was the eventual solution, but not a happy one. His classmates at Portsmouth Priory, where Kennedy was several years younger than the next-youngest student, taught him about “the cruelty of children,” particularly when they disinterred his much-mourned pet turtle and hid it in his bed; the Riverdale Country School for Boys, where he encountered a sexually abusive dorm master, “taught me about the cruelty of adults.”

The tragedies sustained by the Kennedy family during and immediately after the war are known to most Americans over forty. Jack received grave, indeed lifelong, injuries in 1943 during an attack on the torpedo boat he was commanding; Joe Jr. was killed a year later after having volunteered for what might almost be called a suicide mission; sister Kathleen, widowed during the war, died in the crash of a private plane in 1948. Kennedy says little about his private reaction to the deaths of Joe and “Kick,” as Kathleen was called, or to the unhappy consequences of the neurosurgery performed in 1941 on his sister Rosemary, who apparently suffered from a mild form of mental retardation. He was barely out of childhood when these things happened—perhaps too young to have articulated the grief, rage, and bewilderment such events would have elicited. Still, his reticence as a memoirist is puzzling.

Teddy entered Harvard in 1950 and soon “screwed up” (his words). Expelled for a year because he cheated on a Spanish exam, he returned after a stint in the Army to earn respectable grades and a letter in football. But what were such modest achievements compared to those of Jack, elected to Congress in 1946 and to the U.S. Senate in 1952, or even Bobby, serving by 1955 as a headline-making prosecutor of Teamsters Union corruption? Teddy responded by hitching his wagon to his eldest brother’s rising star: Bobby managed Jack’s Senate campaign in 1952, while Ted did the honors in 1958, although he was still in law school. Late in 1956, Jack told the assembled Kennedy clan that he planned to run for president in 1960. “A charge of energy ran through our family at once,” Ted recalls. “[H]elping him become president—this had become our mission.”

Once this happy mission was accomplished and Bobby—against Joe Sr.’s counsel—was tapped as attorney general, Teddy decided to run for Jack’s former Senate seat, which was safely occupied by an appointed placeholder until 1962, when Ted would turn thirty. “My reasons were hardly frivolous,” he says, in what may be the most inadvertently revealing passage in the book. “I was ready to step into the public arena alongside these men who were my father and brothers. To be of use. And to catch up.” A natural campaigner, Ted easily won the Democratic primary and then (less easily) the general election. Thus began Ted Kennedy’s long romance with the U.S. Senate, through which he initially expected to pass on his way to the presidency. The Senate’s rituals, lore, and hierarchically based discipline were ultimately the making of the man, providing the institutional setting where Teddy finally caught up.

The young senator matured slowly, however, and only after a series of horrific shocks: Jack’s assassination, his own brush with death in a 1964 plane crash, and Bobby’s murder in 1968. By the end of the ’60s, in Kennedy’s telling, he was a rudderless man, willing to do almost anything “to stay ahead of the darkness.” The infamous 1969 accident on Chappaquiddick (about which the book affords no new information) put an end, at least temporarily, to Kennedy’s presidential aspirations. So, very likely, did the nation’s rightward drift—arrested only briefly by the Watergate scandal. By the time Ted Kennedy was ready to run for president, challenging the Democratic incumbent in 1980, the national political climate was no longer congenial. Could he have defeated Ronald Reagan had he managed to secure the Democratic nomination? Kennedy thought so; I do not.

The long years of the Reagan ascendancy, followed by a Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, allowed Kennedy to emerge as the keeper of liberalism’s flickering flame. His capacity for hard work, legendarily excellent staff, and ability to work across the partisan divide made him a legislative powerhouse. Marriage in 1992 to Victoria Reggie—Kennedy was divorced from his long-estranged first wife in 1981—subdued his personal demons and ended a spate of negative publicity centered on his drinking. Kennedy’s own account of these years is engaging—an Irishman’s ear for anecdote is evident throughout this mostly “as told to” volume—but oddly superficial. He has little to say about the particulars of social policy, even with regard to health care, on which he was an acknowledged expert. He says nothing at all about Roe v. Wade and his own changing views on abortion.

According to certain Catholics, including some of the nation’s bishops, Kennedy’s long-time support of legal abortion effectively placed him outside the church. (Someone of my vintage is still surprised that a Catholic politician’s divorce and remarriage no longer locates him beyond the pale of orthodoxy, at least in terms of public perception.) That Kennedy was “culturally” Catholic can hardly be disputed. How many Catholics of any nationality can boast of receiving their first Communion from Pope Pius XII, as Teddy did in 1939? In the senator’s own telling, his inherited faith deepened over the years and increasingly sustained him in adversity. He attended Mass on a near-daily basis during his daughter’s treatment in 2002 for an aggressive cancer. His commitment to liberalism, he notes more than once, had always been rooted in the gospel imperative to feed the hungry and clothe the naked: “It is enormously significant to me that the only description in the Bible about salvation is tied to one’s willingness to act on behalf of one’s fellow human beings.” Ted Kennedy may have been wrong about abortion. But in this account of the faith that was in him, whatever its measure of strategic reticence, only the most ungenerous reader will fail to see a morally serious man.

Related: "Compassionate Liberalism" by E. J. Dionne Jr.
"Memory & Hope" by the Editors

Leslie Woodcock Tentler, author of Catholics and Contraception: A History, is professor of history at the Catholic University of America.
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Published in the 2010-04-23 issue: View Contents
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