In the house of Joseph P. Kennedy, training for success began in early childhood with deep immersion in the competitive way of life. Competition was what led to achievement in America: such at least was the Kennedy theory, and Joseph P. Kennedy was determined that his children, all nine of them, should achieve at a very high level.
By 1932, when Edward Moore Kennedy (ever after known to kinfolk and public as “Teddy”) was born, the family competitive style was already highly developed. Brothers and sisters competed “in every conceivable way,” he recalls: at touch football, at sailing, at skipping rocks on the water, at games requiring wit and knowledge. They competed for attention at the dinner table, where entering the conversation required a thorough grasp of the subject under discussion.
In the old days the press made all this sound like great fun—all those beautiful rich people playing touch football on the lawn—but in retrospect, one suspects it was hard duty being one of Joseph P. Kennedy’s four sons. The competition, according to Teddy’s memoir, was not part of a paternal plan to develop a son into a president, but only a way of preparing them all to excel in “public service.”
Still, one son did become president, another was murdered while campaigning to become president, and Teddy in his mature years was under intermittent pressure to try to become president. The wisdom of insider Washington in the 1950s held that the oldest Kennedy son, Joe Junior, would have been the family’s first presidential candidate had he not been killed in World War II. In 1980, at the age of forty-eight, Teddy finally made a strangely halfhearted run at the presidency by opposing Jimmy Carter’s nomination for a second term, and lost.
Whatever motivated the competition in the Kennedy household, it did not produce musicians, poets, scientists, or philosophers. Or even businessmen, which seems curious since it was Joseph P. Kennedy’s success in business that created one of the larger American fortunes. The vital work of managing the family’s wealth and business affairs was assigned to a son-in-law, Stephen Smith, who was married to the youngest Kennedy daughter, Jean.
True Compass, composed as Teddy’s life was drawing to its end, is at its best when revisiting his childhood. He seems to have had a deep love for his father, which is interesting mainly because so many outside the family found Joseph P. Kennedy such an easy man to dislike. Rose, Teddy’s devoutly Catholic mother, scarcely exists in these pages except as a sweet, indulgent, churchgoing figure, beloved of course by the entire family but playing a very minor supporting role to her husband.
It is “Dad” who fills Teddy’s childhood memories: the joy of being allowed to follow behind him on a morning horseback ride, “Dad” presiding as arbiter of the family dinner table where a child had to come prepared to talk well if he wanted to be heard, “Dad” laying down rules to live by, “Dad” issuing the Spartan dictum “There’ll be no crying in this house.”
The “house” he had in mind, I am certain, was the House of Kennedy. He repeated this admonition to all of us, and he pronounced it with the force of moral law, and all of us absorbed its import and molded our behavior to honor it. “There will be no crying in this house.” To understand the profound authority of this charge to us is to understand much about my family.
Teddy also remembers a chilling moment in early adolescence when he had committed some long-forgotten foolishness and was summoned to his father’s room for a chat. The offense may have been long forgotten, but the words his father spoke were “so concise and vivid” that an aged senator still remembered them sixty-five years later:
You can have a serious life or a nonserious life, Teddy. I’ll still love you whichever choice you make. But if you decide to have a nonserious life, I won’t have much time for you. You make up your mind. There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you.
Though Teddy says he was quick to decide on the serious life, he was born with an antic spirit that kept him too young for his years for much too long and led to troubles that left him terribly damaged personally and politically. These included a youthful marriage entered into without much thought, which must have been even more wretched for his first wife, the mother of their three children. There was also a boyish zest for partying, which led, among other things, to a moment of life-and-death crisis at Chappaquiddick when good judgment or courage failed him and a young woman died. There is not much emotion expressed in this book, so his comment on the death of Mary Jo Kopechne—“a horrible tragedy that haunts me every day of my life”—comes off the page with startling force.
In childhood he must have realized quite early that to be a Kennedy was to be somebody special. When his father took him to Yankee Stadium for a baseball game he boosted Teddy out of their box seats and onto the field during batting practice. “Dad” let him wander among the players, then summoned him to meet “a big grinning moon-faced man in a business suit”—Babe Ruth enjoying retirement at the ballpark. When his father was American ambassador in London, Teddy, nine years old and wobbly in punctuation, found it natural to write, “Would you get the kings autograph for me.” It was Pope Pius XII who gave him his first Holy Communion at the Vatican. In England he was introduced to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret at Windsor Castle; at a ceremonial ribbon cutting at a London zoo he shared the stage with the celebrated biologist Julian Huxley. Back home Cardinal Cushing was his father’s close friend and occasional visitor at the family’s Cape Cod house. “He and Dad liked to go out on the Marlin, dad’s motorboat, with a pitcher of chowder and another pitcher of daiquiris, and talk theology and world issues while they cruised,” he writes.
Childhood proximity to the rich, royal, and famous may produce an adult with an elevated sense of his own value in the social order. Perhaps this experience, common among the Kennedy children, accounts for an irritating sense of entitlement that they sometimes conveyed, of thinking themselves an elite people, a special family to whom the usual rules did not apply.
If Teddy’s was a remarkably privileged childhood, it was not free of cruelty. That lay ahead with boarding school. Rich boys of his era were often subjected to private schools whose torments left them ever after equating education with misery. In England even princes of the royal blood were sent away to experience the thrill of cold showers at dawn.
The boarding school brutalities were justified as good for building strong character. It seems just as plausible to conclude that their purpose was to forestall any likelihood that love of learning might overpower love of money among the young. Whatever the theory, Teddy was left with an indifference to learning that had to be overcome, when he became a senator, with private tutoring by Harvard’s finest professors.
He attended nine lower schools before reaching high school. Two were in London, where his father was American ambassador. As the family shuttled from Cape Cod to Palm Beach, following the sun, he was shifted from school to school. There were routine beatings by teachers—at one school, he “distinguished” himself by getting paddled fifteen times—and there were the exquisite cruelties that boys enjoy inflicting on smaller, younger boys. In his loneliness he brought his pet turtle to school for company; the turtle died and he buried it with prayers outside the dormitory; during the night his schoolmates dug it up and put the corpse in his bed. In his seventies he still seems to feel the pain of this incident.
As that school taught him the cruelty of children, he says, a school in the Bronx “taught me about the cruelty of adults.” There he had a dormitory master who “specialized in terror and humiliation.” The man had devised a word game to be played by a group of boys in his room at “lights out.” Making an error required the player to remove an article of clothing. Being in pajamas, a poor player was soon naked and subjected to the dorm master’s “inspection.” No one was “spared the humiliation,” he says. “I spent many terror-filled nights under my bunk, hiding lest I too become one of those victims.” Such were the joys of school days.
College brought another kind of humiliation: expulsion for having a friend take a Spanish examination for him because Teddy knew he would certainly fail. To atone he entered the army and ended doing duty as a military policeman in Paris.
As the family’s ninth and last-born child, Teddy arrived in the world to find himself far behind in the family competition to excel. “I started really behind the eight-ball,” he says, and since then “my entire life has been a constant state of catching up.” His world was quite different from that of his older brothers, so different indeed that Teddy seemed to belong to a younger generation. All three older brothers had been born during the boom years between Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge, and all had done military service during World War II. This made them men of a very different world from Teddy’s. Born in 1932, the worst year of the Great Depression, Teddy was only seven when Hitler invaded Poland, nine when the United States entered the war, and thirteen when it ended. His brothers had been present at the shattering of an epoch; Teddy was a man of the new age.
Catching up began in Jack’s 1960 campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. Assigned to the thinly populated hinterland states where he could not do much harm, Teddy proved to be a natural crowd-pleaser. Fearlessly, he let himself be cajoled into riding an unbusted bronco at a Montana rodeo and, in Wisconsin, into making a ski jump from a ramp ending 190 feet above the ground. The horse needed only seven seconds to send him crashing to earth without injury; though he had not previously tried ski-jumping, he landed without breaking any bones. The crowds cheered. A political natural had found his calling.
With Jack elected to the presidency and Bobby installed as attorney general—at “Dad’s” inexorable insistence, it is said—what could be more sensible than installing Teddy in Jack’s vacant Senate seat? He would have to become thirty years old—the Constitution imposed the age requirement—but once the birthday occurred and the Massachusetts electorate saluted, Teddy found himself secure in the office that Jack and Bobby treated as little more than a stepping stone toward the presidency.