True Compass

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

During Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy’s funeral in August, 2009, his son, Edward M. Kennedy, Jr., recalled wanting to go sledding as a child. He was apprehensive about climbing the snowy hill, however, because he had had a leg amputated after being diagnosed with bone cancer. When the elder Kennedy encouraged him, Teddy, Jr., heeded his father’s words and learned an enduring lesson about the power of determination to overcome life’s obstacles in spite of one’s shortcomings. The theme of persistence runs throughout True Compass.

The youngest of nine children, including three older brothers who outshone their younger sibling, Kennedy had much to prove. His formidable but loving father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., made that clear when he told his son, 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 who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you.

Ted Kennedy decided to lead a “serious” life as he followed his brothers John and Robert into public service.

In True Compass, Kennedy charts his life’s course from his childhood in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, through his years at prep school and Harvard, the beginning of his political career as campaign manager for his brother Jack’s congressional run, and his own years in elective office. Compiled with the help of collaborator Ron Powers, recordings from the oral history project at University of Virginia, reminiscences based on Kennedy’s notes and journals, and extensive interviews reveal a compassionate, down-to-earth, religious yet flawed man who valued family, faith, and service above all else. The work takes on a poignant cast when one realizes that Kennedy’s narrative was completed in the shadow of his impending death from brain cancer.

The Kennedy family’s story is well known, and the high-profile lives of its various members have been fodder for the tabloids and the subjects of endless biographies. Ted Kennedy’s memoir, however, is the first by one of Rose and Joe Kennedy’s offspring and offers a unique insider’s view of the famous family. Kennedy warmly recalls the intellectual challenges of lively discussions at the dinner table led by his mother; horseback rides along the beach with his father; history walks around Boston with his colorful grandfather, former mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald; and the pleasures of sailing in Cape Cod Sound. He also captures the excitement and frustrations of growing up with rambunctious, competitive brothers who were always in motion and rarely at rest. Joe, Jr., who was seventeen years Ted’s senior and was killed during World War II, was not as close to Ted as were the charismatic Jack and the studious Bobby, although Joe, Jr., and Jack taught Ted to sail when he was six.

Teaching Ted to sail was perhaps the greatest gift the older brothers could have given to their younger sibling. As the title of his memoir suggests, sailing played a central role in Kennedy’s life. He was happiest when he was on the water, and when tragedy struck he found solace on the sea. Kennedy’s childhood anecdotes about his relationships with Jack, the future president of the United States, and Bobby, a future senator and presidential candidate, offer unique insight into the loving bonds he shared with them and the deep and abiding grief he experienced when they were both assassinated. In eloquent, elegiac passages, he recounts his efforts to find some relief from his grief in solo nocturnal journeys aboard his sailboat.

Kennedy is open and candid about his childhood and young adulthood, and he paints a mostly rosy picture of his family life during that time. He ignores salacious allegations about his father’s philandering and his brothers’ exploits and instead focuses on what was good about the family’s life inside the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port and at their winter home in Florida. He appears to want to set the record straight and counter the negative publicity that the Kennedy family has endured over the years. For example, Robert Kennedy was famously labeled “ruthless” by the press, but Teddy claims his brother was just the opposite and reveals that Bobby’s undeserved reputation for ruthlessness became a family joke.

As Kennedy moves into recollections of his adulthood, he becomes more restrained about sharing his private life, except when his personal failings impinged upon his political life . He acknowledges reports of scandals and bad behavior on his part but does not add any new details to what already has been...

(The entire section is 1938 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

The Economist 392, no. 8649 (September 19, 2009): 97-98.

Library Journal 135, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 64.

New Statesman 138, no. 4973 (November 2, 2009): 53-54.

The New York Review of Books, 56, no. 18 (November 19, 2009): 6-10.

The New York Times, September 4, 2009, p. 21.

New Yorker 85, no. 31 (October 5, 2009): 79.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 42 (October 19, 2009): 13.

The Spectator 311, no. 9449 (October 3, 2009): 40-41.

Time 174, no. 12 (September 28, 2009): 21.

Weekly Standard 15, no. 2 (September 28, 2009): 17-21.