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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…

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