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Edward Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, Washington, D.C., February 1958

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.


Dominique Nabokov

Edward Kennedy, New York City, 1997

Whether he thought Senate membership fulfilled his father’s idea of what constituted excelling in public service, Teddy does not say. As a memoirist he is disappointingly ungenerous with intimate self-analysis. In any event, Teddy found the Senate a place to his liking. He studied and mastered its bizarre customs and antidemocratic nature, and learned how to survive and then to thrive in an intimate, clubby group of eccentric egoists, almost all white males in those days. It was not unlike belonging to the best fraternity on campus, and Teddy’s antic boyish spirit seemed to find its natural home there. After nearly fifty years of it, he says:

I still cannot be in a car, headed for the Capitol, especially in the evening, and glimpse it in the distance without the hair standing up on my arms…. If ever that sight does not move me, I will know it is time to step aside.

He was the only one of Joseph P. Kennedy’s sons to become an old man, of course, but the violent deaths that befell his brothers produced alarming fears, a sense of “void,” and damaging incidents of libertine behavior. As he gained Senate seniority and popularity, his “exploits as a hell-raiser” began to alarm his friends. Men sliding into the vices of excessive pleasure often blame some vague “mid-life crisis,” but Kennedy ascribes his own excesses to a “desire to escape, to keep moving, to avoid painful memories.” He was living those years, he says, “with a sense of the void.” He had reached a point at which he had “stopped looking forward to things.” Moreover, he acknowledges,

I am an enjoyer. I have enjoyed being a senator; I’ve enjoyed my children and my close friends; I’ve enjoyed books and music and well-prepared food, especially with a generous helping of cream sauce on the top. I have enjoyed the company of women. I have enjoyed a stiff drink or two or three, and I’ve relished the smooth taste of a good wine. At times, I’ve enjoyed these pleasures too much.

He was fifty-nine years old when he met Victoria Reggie, who became his second wife and the person who restored stability and calm to a painful, turbulent, and troubled life. The unanswerable question is whether he still felt a family obligation to try for the presidency, and this raises the even more difficult question: Did he ever really want to be president?

After Bobby’s murder there was always someone urging him to run for president, and when he did so in 1980, it was without the zeal or zest that had always distinguished earlier Kennedy campaigns. Had he discovered that the presidency is not life’s most glittering prize, as it once had seemed? Or was he daunted by the likelihood of becoming an irresistible target for the nation’s armed maniacs? Not to have been aware of his vulnerability would have been inhuman. Seated beside him once in a crowded Washington theater, I immediately found myself scanning the balcony for potential sniper positions, and realized for the first time that he was a man of either great bravery or fatalistic resignation. “I never brooded about it. I could not live my life dwelling on that kind of thing,” he writes. “I’ve decided that I would not live out my life in fear of the shadows.”

He does write, however, of reacting fearfully to sudden unanticipated sounds. Walking in a parade a year after Bobby’s murder, “a burst of popping firecrackers caused me to freeze in my tracks and prepare to dive to the pavement,” though he remained “upright by an act of will.” Some years later, while walking outside the Capitol with his chief of staff, Tom Rollins, a car backfired, and “Tom recalls that I was suddenly nowhere to be seen. Turning around, he saw me flattened on the pavement. ‘You never know,’ Tom recalls me saying. His memory is probably true.”

Even in his seventies, he says, he was still startled by sudden noises and flinched at the twenty-one-gun salutes at burials of the Iraq war dead. Flying home after an official trip to Alaska the year following Bobby’s death, he recalls, he drank too much and behaved badly, “leading everyone in childish chants of ‘Eskimo power!'” Someone, he says, later quoted him as saying “that if I were to run for president, ‘They’re going to shoot my ass off the way they shot off Bobby’s.'” We are left to assume that he cannot remember whether he said it or not.

Campaigning in Iowa in 1980, he was so overwhelmed with Secret Service agents and television people that it was impossible to wage the intimate folksy campaign necessary to win presidential primaries in that state. He could not be the friendly pedestrian stopped on the street corner to talk about corn prices and home cooking; he was a major national event clogging the town with celebrity’s maddening uproar. The thronging agents and TV crews were there because they thought he was “a marked man,” and the cameras came along “to preserve it for posterity should it happen.”

In a book notably light on bile toward political opponents, memory of this failed campaign provokes the senator to some surprisingly sour judgments on President Carter and Roger Mudd, a highly respected television reporter then working at CBS. Mudd conducted the famous TV interview that launched Teddy’s campaign with a thud, and Teddy clearly never forgave him. Here he is still venting angrily about it, and abusing poor Mudd as a trickster and an ingrate.

The problem arose when Mudd asked why Teddy wanted to be president. His reply was so empty and wandering that a national TV audience was encouraged to suppose that he probably did not want to be president, at least not seriously enough to have thought about it, and that maybe he did not really want to be president at all. His account of the affair has it that he was trying to do Mudd a favor and Mudd entrapped him.

Knowing Mudd a little and liking him, he says, he agreed to sit for an interview at his Cape Cod home with the thought that it might help Mudd’s progress at CBS, where he was competing with Dan Rather for Walter Cronkite’s job as the network’s news presenter. Mudd had led him to believe that the interview would be about “the sea and Cape Cod, and what the sea has meant” to him. The sea did not produce much that interested CBS, and he agreed to a second interview in his Washington office, where Mudd opened with the fatal question. Teddy says it came as an utter surprise since he hadn’t yet formally announced his candidacy and did not want to do so in this interview. For Mudd to spring the question at this point was dirty pool, says Teddy, and his unfortunate reply only reflected his indecision about whether to shift plans and make his announcement on the spot.

There is a rare hint of self-pity in the suggestion that he was a victim of trickery in all this and something odd in his suggestion that he had tried to do Mudd a favor and been repaid with treachery. No journalist can read this without feeling some sympathy for Mudd; the offending question, after all, was the question any journalist worth the beginner’s minimum wage would have asked.

Teddy’s reflections on Jimmy Carter speak of a long and profound personal hostility that Carter seems to have reciprocated fully. Here, obviously, were two political leaders destined to detest each other. Teddy’s account of the relationship is highly detailed, but the roots of the hostility would require a psychoanalyst. Probably the Kennedy air of entitlement has something to do with it; it is easy to fancy the intellectually brilliant, hardworking Baptist achiever being determined that he would not be patronized by Kennedy presumption. Easy, too, to fancy that Teddy, now a powerful Washington insider, shrewd enough to know how things really, really work in that mysterious city, might feel contempt for a Georgia outsider—a peanut farmer, for heaven’s sake!—a Sunday school teacher too innocent to know who to trust, who to fear, who to phone to get things done.

Teddy was astounded by the man’s innocence. During Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, Teddy had offered to appear beside him on the campaign trail, only to discover that he was unwelcome. So were other Senate heavyweights—Hubert Humphrey, Ed Muskie, George McGovern. Well, all right, everybody knew that Carter was running as an “outsider,” uncorrupted by Washington’s poisonous Watergate atmosphere. But Teddy saw deeper meaning. He thought Carter “looked on me as a potential spoiler for his presidential hopes,” adding that “he reserved a special place in his animus toward me.”

Teddy may have been a liberal, but he was also an insider, and to be a Washington insider is to believe in the ultimate importance of the inside position. Only from the inside can good things be made to happen; outside, everything is bumbling, hopeless innocence, too unschooled in the double deal and the well-placed bribe to make the good things happen. As an insider, Teddy was baffled by Carter’s refusal to use the insiders’ wisdom and experience:

He was an outsider, and he was going to run things from an outsider’s point of view. This was true of his dealings with the Senate, and one of the principal reasons that he never won that body’s cooperation.

Here Teddy is speaking the authentic insider’s language, and it marks him surely as a Senate man, not a man of executive temperament essential to presidents. “To get along, go along” is the wisdom of the insider. Presidents don’t think in terms of getting along; they think in terms of knocking heads and buying committee chairmen.

Teddy’s irritation with Carter increased as budget cuts were made in programs that mattered greatly to him. He was unhappy with Carter’s failure to make a big push for health care improvements. It was the famous “national malaise” speech in the summer of 1979, however, that started Teddy thinking seriously about having a run at the presidency. The speech did not use the word “malaise.” That was provided by Carter’s polling expert and it was a poisonous contribution.

The speech itself, delivered at a time when the country was afflicted with a larger assortment of troubles than usual, was a melancholy business. It had Carter on national television musing darkly about the erosion of the “very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” The political effect was appalling for Democrats. Theirs was the party that hailed catastrophe with a jaunty grin and a declaration that the only thing anybody had to fear was fear itself. Teddy watched with “incredulousness and outrage,” and thought of Jack and Bobby, and could not imagine them abandoning optimism in times of adversity, and began thinking that he ought to have a try at defeating Carter.

When he finally entered the contest, United Press International reported that Carter said, “I’ll whip his ass.” Beating a president of one’s own party in a fight for the nomination is terribly, terribly hard, and, as with the Mudd interview, not much went Teddy’s way. Carter won the nomination and Ronald Reagan, exuding more optimism than a Hollywood ending, won the election.

Perhaps as a result, Teddy settled into a remarkably productive and apparently delightful old age. In these years, as champion of the Democratic party’s traditional liberal impulse, he became the formidable figure whom media phrasemakers hailed as “the lion of the Senate.” While a succession of increasingly conservative Republican and Democratic presidents conducted a political march to the right, Teddy led the liberal struggle to save and expand health care, education, and other such programs for preserving safety nets under the shrinking middle class and the poor. While prominent Democratic senators with hankerings for the presidency endorsed George W. Bush’s decision to make war in Iraq, Teddy refused to do the easy popular thing and stood against it.

Though it was in the Senate that he finally managed to excel in public service, something about the presidency still left him uneasy. As his life drew to a close he was still insistently rejecting the all-too-plausible theory that he never wanted to be president: “Contrary to all doubts that might have arisen at the time or since, I did want to run,” his memoir declares. “I did want to be president.” Why does this sound like a message addressed to a father who threatened that he would not “have much time” for him if he chose a “nonserious” life?

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November 19, 2009