We’ve heard the word “epic” summoned so often to describe Ted Kennedy’s life, it’s no surprise he starts his autobiography with a device out of Homer.
En medias res—the story starts in the middle of things. Kennedy awakens in a hospital to learn he has a brain tumor. To him, it’s the start of a new challenge, but we know all that remains are the journey home and the tale to tell. Wily and flawed Odysseus recounts how the fates claimed his shipmates and how he alone drifted to shore.
The myth strains a bit, for Penelope—Joan Kennedy—tires of waiting, and second wife Vicki, whom he credits with saving him from himself, is along for the final sail. The sea, however, is Kennedy’s enduring metaphor—hence the title. He recalls sailing frequently after the death of his brother Robert in 1968: “I surrendered myself to the sea and the wind and the sun and the stars on these voyages.” Sailing at night, in particular, “helped displace the emptiness inside me with the awareness of direction”—his italics.
This is an odd redemption for a man whose early life is nearly rudderless. Joe and Rose Kennedy cavalierly toss their youngest child into a succession of schools, even at the wrong grade level, sometimes for just a few months, as they move among New York, Boston, Hyannis Port, Florida and London—where Joseph P. Kennedy serves as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s prewar ambassador. But a Kennedy to the end, Ted never whines. He writes often, and sometimes movingly, about his parents’ insistence that their children never flaunt the blessings of wealth and never complain. Throughout the book, however, youngest son seems unaware that most readers are unaccustomed to multiple homes and frequent trips abroad, that we rarely convene committees of top medical specialists when illness strikes.
The tortuous journey to adulthood is something of a slog for the reader, until Kennedy gets booted out of Harvard for cheating. As with all his failings, he blames himself, although he carefully explains how circumstances almost unavoidably propelled him. A friend offered to take the Spanish test for him. He couldn’t sleep, so he took his son and nephew to a club to drink. He was driving an unknown road late at night; he wanted to believe Mary Jo Kopechne got out of the car; he was in shock. “Atonement is a process that never ends,” he asserts, closing the Chappaquiddick episode.
- True Compass: A Memoir
- Edward M. Kennedy.
- Twelve, Hachette Book Group, $35.
- Amazon: True Compass
Atoning for “the Harvard screwup” began with enlisting in the Army. And with this the wind begins to fill Kennedy’s sails. He’s a sharp and witty storyteller, and you can imagine him enriching many a daiquiri-fueled hour with the story of fighting off three French communists with a bike chain while he was stationed in France. He returns to Harvard, studies law at the University of Virginia, and just like that, he’s running brother Jack’s 1958 Senate campaign. In 1960, Jack dispatches him westward to drum up delegates by, among other things, riding a rodeo bronco. He claims to win a long-shot bet in Las Vegas when his brother wins the presidency. (As the Los Angeles Times has noted, an independent book might have taken Kennedy’s bet back then.)
Detractors, of course, will scoff, and grumble about the mob and the Daley Machine. Kennedy says elsewhere he never responds to rumors, but it’s worth considering that the 28-year-old, whose father forbids him to collect on his bet, might be out of the loop.
Eventually, the epic becomes Kennedy’s own, and the tales more absorbing: maneuvering Sam Ervin into suggesting Kennedy launch the first Senate Watergate investigation; duking it out with Jimmy Carter; courting Victoria Reggie; listening to Robert Byrd lecture Bill Clinton and assorted senators about Tiberius and gays in the military. The story of his exhilarating speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, which nearly did not happen, is part of the en medias res opening of the book.
All memoirists fudge, and no doubt Ted Kennedy does, too. But whatever his failings, he served the nation well, with keen devotion to justice. We might dismiss his life as the product of bygone mythmaking, but have we come up with anything better?