True Compass is labeled a “memoir.” I always thought a memoir had a limited scope of time and events, such as Pamuk’s Istanbul, which focuses on his growing up years. True Compass is really an autobiography. A rather eerie experience reading this, knowing it was written with a true, not a figurative, deadline. The acknowledgements state that it was begun in 2004, but I’m sure it was not then slated for a 2009 finish. Certainly the author (Kennedy gives credit in the acknowledgements section to Ron Powers for much of the writing, but Powers is not listed as an author or “as told to”) he had no inkling of his own 2009 finish.
Since Kennedy and and brothers and family lived so much of their lives in public, and since they always seemed to be center stage in the pivotal moments of the last sixty years or so, reading this book seemed a little like reviewing current events. Camelot, the assassinations, The Civil Rights Act, The Great Society, Vietnam, Johnson, Chappaquiddick, Medicare, the Clinton impeachmentand on and on–Teddy and his parents and siblings and offspring and their offspring were right in the middle of all of it all the time.
Because he focuses so heavily on the public knowledge aspects of most of these events, I did not pick up a lot of behind-the-scenes knowledge or insight from True Compass. There were some. I hadn’t realized the degree of antipathy between him and Jimmy Carter. A true clash of Catholic wealth and protestant plainness. I also didn’t realize how he’d been bounced around from school to school during his childhood. He ended up distinguishing himself at Harvard, but I doubt he would have gotten in in the first place without the push of privilege. At any rate, however he got there, he got himself elected to the Senate at the earliest possible age (thirty) and built a career of achievement that few can match. He had his flaws, like all of us. The the always open wound that stemmed from the overpartying flaw, is Chappaquiddick. He makes no excuses for himself on that one, and he acknowledges that atonement is not a one-time event, but a lifelong process. But Mary Jo is still dead, and it was his fault.
I miss him, and I wonder if the health care legislation would be such a mess if he were still around. No way of knowing, is there?
True Compass is a breezy read, not overly self-serving, not too full of polemic (though a conservative might be of a different opinion), and a good compendium of the events of our recent history and of a life that is too big to fit in one book. I’m sure there will be many others.