The authorized version of the Kennedy myth receives one more installment.
by Andrew Ferguson
The Weekly Standard
09/28/2009, Volume 015, Issue 02
"Oh my," said Dorothy Gale, waving off the candy-colored cloud that trailed some departing witch, "people come and go so quickly here." As it was in Munchkinland, so it is in Washington, D.C. Less than a month has gone by since the death--I guess we're supposed to say "passing" nowadays--of Edward Kennedy, one of the capital's most celebrated residents, and already he seems a figure from a weightless past. The current campaign to reform the nation's health care system was expected to draw new drafts of inspiration from his, um, death, but it limps along pretty much as it did while he was alive; in the arguments his name goes mostly unmentioned, even on the Senate floor, where you might think his passionate bellow could yet be faintly heard but apparently isn't. Flags flew at half-mast but only briefly. The crowd that gathered at his grave has thinned. And his long-awaited memoir, True Compass (Twelve, 532 pp., $35.00), a book that was meant to reaffirm his reputation and carry it far into the future, was released last week, stillborn.
Not everyone would have predicted such a fate for (by Washington standards) such a formidable figure, especially in the ranks of those for whom predictions are daily meat, our talky-talky journalists. No sooner had the sad news leaked from Hyannis Port than they were on the air and in print working to establish their intimacy with Ted Kennedy, with a strenuousness that suggested that a Churchill, a Roosevelt, a de Gaulle, or some other eminence with historical staying power had just clocked out--I mean passed. It seemed impossible that the influence of such a man, at once so human and so larger-than-life, would so quickly recede. One columnist said Kennedy had once taken the time to recommend a doctor for his ailing son--the compassion, unprecedented. Another recalled how he, as a young reporter who "didn't know nothing," managed to snag an actual interview with the senator for his newspaper, the Washington Post--the generosity, unheard of. Another said that in one of their many interviews Kennedy had shown only moderate interest in abstract philosophy but could cite provisions from a bill he had advocated for two years--the legislative mastery, hard to believe.
The same awe launched this memoir and rushed it into print. It is a product of the great Kennedy apparat, the on-retainer network of publicists, backbenchers, scribblers, private investigators, academics, secretaries, archivists, gag writers, and all-purpose gofers that still survives, in greatly attenuated form, 90 years after old Joe Kennedy put it together from his bottomless bank account. Ted Kennedy didn't write his memoir, of course--getting words on paper has always been a job for the apparat, at least since John Kennedy proudly accepted a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, which was written by Ted Sorensen (who still, at 81, has yet to complain; a profile in clamming up). True Compass draws from interviews done by researchers at the Edward M. Kennedy Oral History Project at the University of Virginia. That material was supplemented by more recent interviews with Kennedy and his subordinates, and from a hamper of "personal notes" that--who knew?--the senator had been jotting down for the last busy 50 years.
To stitch it all into coherent sequences of sentences and paragraphs the apparat hired one of the country's premier overwriters, the biographer and TV essayist Ron Powers, a babbling brook of prose so rich, gorgeous, luminous, ennobling, uplifting, oceanic, swept with the mysteries of sea and sky, that it places him in the pantheon where dwell the greatest Kennedy ghosts: your Sorensens, your Goodwins and Shrums, the artisans who gave us "the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, the dream shall never die" and much else. You read a sentence like this from True Compass--"Taking the tiller has steered me away from nearly unendurable grief across the healing waters on the long hard course toward renewal and hope"--and you realize, damn, it's that same old trumpet summoning us once again. Blow, Ron, blow.
What True Compass is, then, is the authorized version, rendered in the patented Kennedy style. With the endless multiplication of grandchildren and great grandchildren, the family blood thins and so does public interest; another episode of drug addiction or sexual assault among this latest generation would scarcely rouse even the most desperate tabloid. So True Compass may well be the last chance the Kennedy family will have to place before the public its own version of its history, here seen through the life of its greatest generation's youngest son.
Many accidents of fate conspired to place so great a burden upon Ted's unlikely shoulders. In contrast to his elder brothers, Joe Jr. and Jack, Teddy was not bred or reared for greatness. He was the baby of the family, the apple of his father's eye, and his mother's ...well, it's unclear, from his telling, what role he played in Rose Kennedy's world. Ted's undoubtedly genuine and often touching expressions of love for her contrast starkly with, as we say in Washington, the facts on the ground, at least as you find them here. Having deposited her ninth and final child with her team of nannies, and fed up with her husband's wild and ostentatious extra-marital rutting, Rose took to traveling the world for months at a time, until looming war made grand tours inconvenient. Her punctiliousness--she scheduled the subjects of her family's table talk, and furnished each child with background reading to study before dinner--could veer into something darker. She was quick to reach for the coat hanger when she spied any infraction of her elaborate rules, and after the thrashing she would lock the smarting kid in a darkened closet for good measure. Ted's schooling was at the mercy of her extravagant whims. One time, when he reached third grade, she enrolled him in a new school, unaware that its classes were only for seventh graders and up--and she left him there, to "sink or swim."
(This is as good a point as any to address the touchy subject of aquatic metaphors, with which Kennedy's memoir overflows. A man whose public career was nearly ruined by his role in the drowning of a young woman would have done well to steer clear of them--and to tell his ghostwriter to watch out too. Yet here they are, all over the place, starting with the epigraph from a play by Eugene O'Neill. It reads in part: "I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself--actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea " The apparat used to be more careful than this.)
Teddy's brothers, like all big brothers, were alternately affectionate, protective, and sadistic, though the age difference between them--Jack was 15 years older than Ted--meant that Joe and Jack, and later Bobby, were often absent from home, pursuing the strict regimen of study, travel, work, and whoring that their father had arranged for them as a preparation for the climb to power. Several times Ted mentions his childhood loneliness, shuttled from one boarding school to the next, and there's poignancy to go along with his wistful memories of family good times (scenes that might have been plucked from a PBS documentary: touch football on the lawn, the glistening Sound beyond, the windswept hair, the gleaming teeth ). The best description of Ted's place in the family came from one of Jack's mistresses, who explained it this way to Burton Hersh, an early biographer: "The old man would push Joe, Joe would push Jack, Jack would push Bobby, Bobby would push Teddy, and Teddy would fall on his ass."
His role as family mascot might have doomed him to haplessness. Reaching young adulthood, he became the first Kennedy in three generations to drink in quantity, and he treated it like an ancestral obligation. The family enrolled him in Harvard and he got kicked out for cheating on an exam; he swanned around Europe with B-level starlets and the second cousins of low-ranking royalty; he went to law school at UVA and impressed his classmates most by driving fast cars and nearly destroying the house he had rented from a kindly professor. When his brothers began their rise in politics, he was eager to help but was instead dispatched to distant provinces to charm voters and stay the hell out of trouble. Little Lord Fauntleroy become Fredo Corleone.
To learn much of this family history you have to read between the lines--or, better, you have to read other essential Kennedy texts, such as Garry Wills's The Kennedy Imprisonment, to supplement the useful but highly selective account that True Compass offers. After Jack was elected president, in 1960, the family decided to give his Senate seat to Teddy as a reward for good behavior and an introduction to the family business. The account in True Compass of how Teddy got to the Senate is a masterpiece of sly misdirection and exquisite omission. It serves as a model of how this authorized version sails right past the rough patches of the family history, whether it's his father's bootlegging, Jack's philandering, or Bobby's wiretapping. Teddy will acknowledge that unflattering "stories have been told," which gives him credit for candor, and then he'll ignore the stories, which gets him off the hook.
"The seat was being held by a good man named Benjamin Smith," Teddy writes. "The story has been told that Smith's appointment was arranged specifically to clear the way for me in 1962: he'd agreed to 'hold' the seat until I was old enough to run at age thirty; then he would step aside." Sounds like a cynical power play, doesn't it? But that's not what happened at all, he assures us. "The truth is more complex."
Indeed, the truth is so complex that Teddy never gets around to telling it. He follows this passage with a lengthy and interesting--and completely irrelevant--detour through Massachusetts politics and his brief tenure as a government attorney. The next thing we know, 30 pages later, the detour abruptly ends and Teddy is in the Senate, "the appointed Benjamin Smith having stepped aside." You wonder where poor Ben has been for the last ten thousand words. The truth, novices may be interested to learn, isn't too terribly complex. Like the man said: Smith's appointment was arranged specifically to clear the way for Teddy in 1962, until he was old enough to run at age 30. It was a typically vulgar exercise of the family's sense of entitlement, backed by political muscle, and good man Smith, a family footman, simply faded from the Kennedy story, having done his duty.
Teddy was in the Senate chamber when he got word of President Kennedy's murder. From this calamity, and from the trauma of Bobby's death five years later, the Teddy that most Americans knew emerged. Beyond his own grief, Kennedy admits, he fretted for his political future, and any Kennedy watcher will sympathize. The Senate seat that had been bequeathed to him by his family was his for as long as he wanted; Massachusetts voters would do as they were told. But what would Kennedy himself do with it? The purpose of the brothers' pursuit of power had been the acquisition of power. There had been no Kennedy political program to enact, no Kennedy principles to evangelize. The family was utterly uncontaminated by ideology of any kind. Without the brothers, what then was left to pursue?
It is here that Teddy's life assumes what historical significance it has, for he became a kind of pointer on the path the Democratic party followed from 1968 on. There was nothing in the family history to suggest that Teddy would become the liberal he became after the death of his brothers--or to suggest the kind of liberal he would become. The old man had been a New Dealer, urban-ethnic division, but he loathed the welfare state. He was also an America First isolationist and, after the war, a proud booster and friend of Joseph McCarthy--a friendship that Bobby sealed for eternity by naming the Tailgunner the godfather of his first child, Kathleen (future lieutenant governor of Maryland). Running for president Jack was more hawkish than his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon. As president he zigged and zagged. He wanted to nationalize the steel industry and cut marginal tax rates on the rich by 20 percent. He founded the Peace Corps and tried to blow Fidel Castro's head off with an exploding cigar. Teddy tries retrospectively in his memoir to impose some philosophical order on this presidential dog's breakfast, but it's no use.
"Succinctly as I can," he offers "the list of [JFK's] great accomplishments: championing the American landing on the moon [championing means: giving speeches about]; building the political foundations of the Civil Rights Act [as opposed to passing the Civil Rights Act]; standing firm in the Berlin crisis and during the Cuban Missile Crisis [having provoked the former and running the risk in the latter of getting us all killed]; creating the Alliance for Progress; bringing us the test ban treaty and the beginning of the end of the cold war." The Alliance for Progress?
The closest any Kennedy had come to ideological passion was the late-blooming idealism of Bobby. According to official family narrative, the middle brother went to Appalachia in the years after Jack's death, recoiled at the poverty he saw there, and came back quoting Aeschylus. But this is thin soup for a philosophical legacy. Teddy was bereft. In his memoir he refers often to his love of political philosophy. Yet he never bothers to demonstrate it by explaining why, beyond mere convenience and lack of anything else to do, he chose to throw the family name behind the new liberalism that became the reigning ideology of his party--thanks in large part to him.
For our own convenience we can call it 1970s liberalism. It had only a superficial resemblance to earlier editions, and its traces are still with us. Kennedy himself never let it go, even through the milk-and-water moderation of the Clinton years. It entails an obsessive concern with the redistribution of wealth, the imposition of federal control over ever more distant reaches of American life, the raising of abortion to the level of secular sacrament, anti-anti-communism, multiculturalism, quasi-pacifism, and--the ism that undergirds all the others--a fierce, unyielding moralism, according to which any adversary who opposes the isms listed above is not merely mistaken but depraved.
Kennedy's embrace of this moral exhibitionism had its difficulties, practical and otherwise. First, it betrayed the image of intellectual poise and cool detachment that had made Jack attractive to large numbers of voters. More important, Teddy was heatedly testifying to the largeness of his heart even as his "personal failings"--as he called them in his occasional public acts of contrition--became impossible to ignore. Bellowing on the Senate floor about the meanness, duplicity, cruelty, power-hunger, hypocrisy, and general indecency of Republicans, he was simultaneously understood by the public to be a negligent husband, a serial adulterer, a liar, and a drunk. Maybe the moral exhibitionism in his political life was compensation for the rapacity of his private life. It certainly saved him with the many Democrats who continued to lionize him.
Not every liberal or every Democrat went along, of course. Feminism was one ism that Teddy underestimated--but only at first. In a brave and resounding essay, published in the Washington Monthly in 1979, Suzannah Lessard drew a straight line from the family's insatiable hunger for power to the many, many "semi-covert, just barely personal and ultimately discardable encounters" with anonymous women that Teddy was famous for. Other feminists, including Wills, took up the theme. Teddy responded by energetically adopting causes dear to his critics, especially by dropping his previous reservations about an unlimited abortion right. On paper, anyway, he became a raging feminist. The "personal failings" continued, however, and in the end, when he challenged President Carter in 1980, they cost him the prize of a presidential nomination. A Helen Reddy party would not tolerate a Rat Pack nominee.
The paradox between private Teddy and public Teddy disappeared once he married his second wife and settled down to a routine of domesticity and hard work. The moral exhibitionism was still there, needless to say. It's scattered throughout his memoir, as when he complains about opponents who "continue their long-standing habits of spurning the poor, the helpless, and the hungry--especially hungry children." (That last clause, about the "children," must be pure reflex: Did he think the bad guys were slipping food to the parents on condition they not share it with the kids?) Meanwhile, he gained a reputation as a great legislator and, less predictably, as a model of bipartisanship. His commitment to "getting things done" and "crossing the aisle" were the two qualities that our talky-talkies mentioned incessantly after his death, in an implicit rebuke to the bumptious ideologues that are alleged to be ruining Congress today.
The list of legislative accomplishments attributed to Kennedy is indeed long. It's also inflated by celebrity and longevity. His decades in the Senate guaranteed that he would have lots of chances to pass bills, and his fame guaranteed he would get primary credit for bills that got passed whether he deserved it or not. Any number of sitting senators have been as energetic and effective. Give Richard Lugar, Kent Conrad, Max Baucus--even Orrin Hatch!--another 15 or 20 years and their achievements will match Kennedy's. The talky-talkies won't notice, though.
Kennedy was a tireless promoter of his reputation for bipartisanship, what he calls in his memoir "my abiding impulse to reach across lines of division during my career." The aisle-reaching came and went with the political seasons. It first appeared in 1980, when the Senate, for the first time in Kennedy's career, fell into the clutches of Republicans, whose cooperation Democrats suddenly required if they were to continue leading the country along its forced march toward human perfection. With a few exceptions, Kennedy before 1980 had been as willing as any majority member to muscle aside the minority. Yet he really did believe, as he says in his memoir, that "we were elected to do something." Something, anything. His faith in governmental activism was a huffing, puffing engine that knew no rest. He wasn't going to allow a Republican electoral victory to stand in the way. And so, for example, he happily conspired with the first President Bush to pass the draconian Americans with Disabilities Act and, with the second, the disastrous No Child Left Behind education reform. In the proponents of "big-government (or compassionate, or national-greatness, or kinder, gentler) conservatism" he found the useful idiots he needed. He knew, as they did not, that any expansion of federal power would in the end work to his advantage and that of his ideological heirs. They could always rewrite the details later.
Though of course it's his last, True Compass is not Ted Kennedy's first book. In the late 1960s he got out a collection of his speeches; it slipped into obscurity after a magazine rudely pointed out that Ted's speechwriters had cribbed passages from speeches they had originally written for Bobby, which had already been collected in book form. And 1979 brought us Our Day and Generation. It wasn't much more than a photograph album of various Kennedys in poses of playfulness or purpose, in sorrow or in sunlight, garnished with more squibs from the speechwriters. Even so you could tell the book was a certified Kennedy production. It carried an introduction by Henry Steele Commager, one of the great American historians of midcentury. The foreword was written by Archibald MacLeish, perhaps the era's foremost middlebrow man of letters.
It is striking that the apparat could muster nothing so classy for True Compass. The ranks of retainers have run thin. Times have changed. The night is far spent. Published as it is without blurbs or imprimaturs of any kind, it seems naked almost, stripped of all ceremony and left to stand or fall on its own. And if it falls, what are we to conclude? That perhaps the cause doesn't endure after all? That the work may not go on? That the dream, whatever it was, may not survive the dreamer, because the dreamer was himself the dream?
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.