Hugh Brogan

A serious life

White-haired, red-faced, cheerfully garrulous, outgoing, pugnacious when nec- essary, portly: in his last years Senator Ted Kennedy strikingly resembled the Irish-American politicos of old, particularly his maternal grandfather, John Fitzgerald, ‘Honey Fitz,’ twice mayor of Boston.

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True Compass: A Memoir

Edward M. Kennedy

Little, Brown, pp. 532, £

White-haired, red-faced, cheerfully garrulous, outgoing, pugnacious when nec- essary, portly: in his last years Senator Ted Kennedy strikingly resembled the Irish-American politicos of old, particularly his maternal grandfather, John Fitzgerald, ‘Honey Fitz,’ twice mayor of Boston.

White-haired, red-faced, cheerfully garrulous, outgoing, pugnacious when nec- essary, portly: in his last years Senator Ted Kennedy strikingly resembled the Irish-American politicos of old, particularly his maternal grandfather, John Fitzgerald, ‘Honey Fitz,’ twice mayor of Boston. Kennedy was well aware of the likeness, and his account of Honey Fitz is one of the most enjoyable passages in this memoir; but he did not go so far as to concede that he was more of a Fitzgerald than a Kennedy. Readers will form their own opinions.

Yet the dominant theme of the book is the burden and difficulty of becoming a Kennedy, as if it were a profession with a fiendishly exacting entrance exam (Kennedy was not always good at exams, and notoriously was detected when cheating for a Spanish exam at Harvard). Teddy (as his family called him) was the youngest of the nine children of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, and was both inspired and intimidated by his brilliant siblings. His father directed the lives of all his children, with incessant suggestions that were received as unquestionable commands; when he was not spying on them (he had a network of agents operating wherever they went), he was instilling such family maxims as ‘Kennedys don’t cry’ and ‘Kennedys don’t complain.’ When the 14-year-old Teddy was caught out in some naughtiness, his father asked him if he meant to lead a serious or non-serious life. ‘I’ll still love you whatever choice you make. But if you decide to have a non-serious life I won’t have much time for you . . .’ By contrast, the mother’s insistence on competitive, high-minded conversation at all meals, and her disciplinary custom of spanking delinquents with wire coat-hangers, seem almost benign.

Then there were the brothers, Joe Jr., Jack, and Bobby. It is hardly surprising that Teddy idolised them, felt driven to emulate them, but concluded that only perseverance would enable him to catch up, and even perseverance seemed to fail when, one by one, heroic death took each of them. After Bobby’s assassination, I think, Teddy was certain to meet disaster of some kind. The Chappaquiddick incident was significant not only because the young woman who was Teddy’s passenger died in a car accident (the number of plane and car crashes in the saga of the Kennedys is appalling) but also, and perhaps even more, because of his total moral collapse. He panicked; he saved himself from drowning, but failed to do anything effective to save Mary-Jo Kopechne; he did not report the accident for 12 hours; he left the scene; he lapsed into incoherence when asked to describe or explain his behaviour. He was undeservedly lucky in the sequel: his political career continued, and eventually he married (for the second time) with tremendous success, and rendered sterling service to his country as one of its most notable senators. He shed the Kennedy burden and entered upon his Fitzgerald inheritance.

The story is well known, and well worth reading, and the Senator (who worked on his memoirs, with the aid of a ghostwriter, from 2004 onwards) handles it impressively. His book is neither literature — it is too clumsily written, and reprints too many empty speeches — nor history — being insufficiently detached; it is memoires pour server, as the French would say; except that it is something more than serviceable. Kennedy’s very lack of writerly skills means that he gives himself away completely; we come to know his character clearly, for good or bad. He was at the centre of American politics for nearly 50 years, and his book is a golden treasury of anecdote. He had an excellent eye for character and incident: his evocation of his brother Jack is especially lively, and his assessment of some of the presidents he knew (especially Carter, Reagan and Clinton) is even more interesting. Obedient to his father, he had resolved to lead a serious life if he could, and he applied himself steadily to the task of legislation, especially health reform, to which he returned year after year, decade after decade: in Barack Obama he hoped that he had at last found a president who would bring it about. (It would be easier for Obama if Kennedy were still alive to help him).

No one should expect to find tittle- tattle or soul-baring in this book: it is memoirs, not confessions, and Kennedy, as he says himself, was reticent about his inner life (but he should have been franker about his drinking). Anyone with a serious interest in recent American history will find it absorbing.