- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009

TRUE COMPASS
By Edward M. Kennedy
Twelve, $35, 532 pages
REVIEWED BY BY CLAUDE R. MARX

Listening to, or reading, the personal and professional war stories of most politicians can be a tiresome experience. More often than not, the anecdotes are tedious and the author tries to exaggerate his or her own importance.

“True Compass” is a notable exception. The late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has produced a revelatory — though not tabloidesque — account of his storied life and career. While the Massachusetts Democrat was not without ego, he is willing to share the credit both with colleagues and family members for his successes and isn’t shy about accepting blame for his many mistakes.

His personal flaws — including being kicked out of Harvard for cheating, the Chappaquiddick incident and his womanizing — are well documented. Yet in this book, for the first time, he discusses the toll they took on him.

In the section on Chappaquiddick, he doesn’t reveal more details about his behavior on that tragic night, though he does write about how he believes atonement isn’t a one-time occurrence but something he attempted on a daily basis for the rest of his life.

He also describes his immense feelings of guilt that not only did Mary Jo Kopechne die in the accident, but his actions may have hastened his own father’s death later that year.

After Joe Kennedy Sr.’s funeral in November 1969, the family walked on the beach. Mr. Kennedy recounts: “Later, I walked alone, letting the tears come, and struggling with thoughts more wrenching than those following my previous bereavements. I wondered whether I had shortened my father’s life from the shock I had visited on him with my news of the tragic accident on Chappaquiddick Island. The pain of that burden was almost unbearable.”

What is striking is that such public self-reflection was generally anathema to Mr. Kennedy and many in his generation. He writes of his “personal distaste for self-justification” and noted, “I don’t have a lot of respect for people who whine or go around feeling sorry for themselves.”

It’s a refreshing attitude, especially at a time when every third-tier celebrity seems compelled to share every passing thought and feeling.

He is less reflective on some aspects of his political career. For example, he expresses no regret for his hyperbolic and partially erroneous speech following President Reagan’s nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mr. Kennedy was a key leader in the successful effort to defeat the nomination of the brilliant though controversial jurist. Yet the rhetoric and tactics Mr. Kennedy and his allies used in that fight coarsened the tone of the political discourse. At least some of divisiveness plaguing our contemporary political culture can be traced back to the Bork battle.

Mr. Kennedy’s memoir would have been even more interesting if he had recounted some of the strategy and negotiation sessions in that and other legislative battles. What kind of horse trading went on and were there debates about how far to go when demonizing those on the other side?

Such omissions are especially unfortunate given the breadth and depth of Mr. Kennedy’s achievements on an array of policy areas such as education, medical research and immigration.

When he died last month he was justifiably praised as a liberal leader and master legislator, and some even predicted he would some day be mentioned in the same breath as such senatorial legends such as John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. It is too early to tell what Mr. Kennedy’s place in history will be, and as Richard M. Nixon famously said, much will depend on who is doing the writing.

A biography of Lyndon Johnson was aptly titled “Flawed Giant,” and that is an accurate description of Mr. Kennedy. The highs and lows of his extraordinary life are chronicled in this enjoyable work, on which Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Powers was the collaborator.

Since people will no longer have the chance to sit with Mr. Kennedy on the porch of his home in his beloved Hyannisport overlooking the ocean as he sips hot tea and tells yarns, reading “True Compass” is the next best thing.

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on history and politics.