Saturday, March 20, 2010

True Compass: Ted Kennedy's memoir

Earlier this year I won an audio copy of Ted Kennedy's memoir, True Compass, from Laura's Reviews. Since I only listen to audio books in the car and I have a home office (i.e., no commute), it took me a little while to complete it, but I am happy to report that I loved every minute of it.

At first, I found John Bedford Lloyd's reading a little harsh--I was expecting a New England accent, but I quickly realized that if I wasn't actually listening to Ted Kennedy reading his words, the accent wouldn't be appropriate, and then I settled into Lloyd's voice and came to really like it.

Ted Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1962 when I was three years old. It's probably safe to say that he was involved in virtually every event that happened in the U.S. during my life until he died last summer. When I was young, one of my favorite books in my parents' library was The Torch Is Passed: the Associated Press Story of the Death of a President. I remember lying on the living room floor and memorizing the pictures that immortalized JFK, his presidency, and his family, which, of course, included his youngest brother, Ted.

It was interesting to hear Ted Kennedy's reminiscences of his childhood and young adulthood, particularly his relationship to his parents and maternal grandfather, John Francis "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald. I found this book to be particularly inspiring with regards to never complaining, never taking privilege for granted, never answering the tabloid stories, and owning one's mistakes. Kennedy wrote about how he dealt with tragedy, how his faith proved to be his guiding light, and how he opened his heart to love and second chances. He wrote of family and personal loyalty, responsibility, accountability, and eternal optimism. He wrote about striving to live a serious life, one that made a difference.

I loved reading about how Kennedy worked as a senator. What I admired was that he wasn't hesitant at all to use the connections he had to tap into the expertise of people in whatever field he needed to learn about in order to legislate on. He got tutorials from constitutional scholars, professor, doctors, engineers, and researchers as well as his constituents. I was impressed with the legwork that he did before he cast a vote, wrote a bill, or championed a cause. I wonder how many of his fellow senators did or do the same level of legwork. I assume he set the bar pretty high.

Ted Kennedy wrote True Compass while he was battling brain cancer and in a way he was really writing his own epitaph or obituary. Some topics he chose not to address--Marilyn Monroe is never mentioned, for example--while others he deals with head on, such as Chappaquiddick and the failure of his first marriage, his drinking, his sister Rosemary's lobotomy, and his suspension from Harvard.

I think the most interesting part was when he discussed his relationship with Jimmy Carter. I think most people agree that Carter makes a better former president than he did a president and his work with Habitat for Humanity has made many forget the malaise that gripped the country when he was at the helm. Kennedy describes a side of Carter that I never knew about and which helps to explain how he failed as a leader.

While listening to True Compass, I tried never to forget that it was a memoir and not a biography. It was Kennedy's side of the story, but even so, it was fascinating, inspiring, and educational.

While most of us knew that Kennedy was passionate about his particular causes (health care, civil rights, education), I enjoyed his poetic side when he talked about sailing and the sea, and it is from this that his title and abiding life-metaphor derives.

A sail from Cape Cod to Maine, with a southwest breeze, is a glorious adventure, and it’s a trip that Bobby and I had enjoyed in years past. About twenty miles from Hyannis, you see a sweep of sand dunes. And as the sun descends, only a few lights appear onshore, and so you head off into the darkness. Yet in the darkness you can see well into the distance, once you have learned where and how to look. The Cape gradually disappears, and the shore lights with it. After a while, new distant lights, small and bright, appear in the shoreline. And then the full darkness descends. Seldom is there another boat in sight. And that is the truly magical time of sailing, because the North Star appears: the North Star, which has been the guiding star for all seamen through time. The North Star guides you through the evening. Its light is the most definite thing you can see on the surface of the dark water. And so you have the North Star, and the sound and swell of the shifting water. And sometimes the fog will come in and you must go by the compass for a period. But you are always waiting to see the North Star again, because it is the guide to home port; it is the guide to home. And so the voyage becomes all-inclusive; you are enveloped in the totality of it: you are a part of the beginning, you are a part of the end. You are a part of the ship and a part of the sea. I gazed at the night sky often on those voyages, and thought of Bobby.

So far, this is the best book I've read in 2010.


  1. I definitely need to get my hands on this one. Wonder if I can talk my parents into buying it (my dad was an American History teacher and gobbles up biographies and autobiographies) then I can borrow it!

  2. i love The kennedys and would love to listen to this one. Glad u liked it; thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Thanks for the review! I love the Kennedy's and am anxious to read or listen to this one. I read Ed Klein's biography of Ted Kennedy but would be interested to hear the same events told from Ted Kennedy's perspective.

  4. I was 3 in 1962 too. JFKs funeral on T.V. is one of my earliest memories. I rushed to my library today hoping they would have this book in - no luck. I'm intrigued esp. about Ted's relationship with Carter. I always liked Carter but thought he might be too honest to be a successful leader.

  5. Thank you for this wonderful review. I must make time for this book. I really appreciate the reminder that sometimes it's worth reading something that was not written before 1950.