Support the news

Doris Kearns Goodwin: In 'True Compass,' Kennedy Finally Felt Free To Reflect 03:32

This article is more than 10 years old.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's disposition as a born senator came through clearly in "True Compass," says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. "Even though he says, 'Yes I wanted to be president,' the rest of the tone of the book makes it so clear that he felt just a natural inclination to like the daily work of the Senate." (AP)
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's disposition as a born senator came through clearly in "True Compass," says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. "Even though he says, 'Yes I wanted to be president,' the rest of the tone of the book makes it so clear that he felt just a natural inclination to like the daily work of the Senate." (AP)

The late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's new memoir, "True Compass," provides an inside look at some of the most formative times in the senator's life.

Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was a long-time family friend of Ted Kennedy's. She spoke to us from her home about the book and its insights into Kennedy's life and legacy.

Bob Oakes: I imagine that you read this book not just as a historian, but also a long-time friend of Ted Kennedy and the Kennedy family. What does "True Compass" signify for you?

The Extended Interview:

On Not Being President

On His Relationship With Honey Fitz

On Bobby's Death Hitting Hardest

On His Silence About His Failings

On The Presidents He Worked With

On His Catholic Faith

Read an excerpt from "True Compass"Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well, what I think surprised me about "True Compass" is the realization that it was written by Teddy Kennedy at a time in his life when he really could be more reflective about his past, himself and his struggles then I think he ever would have been before.

Both because he knew he was coming to the end of his life in these last couple of years, and because, I think, in finding Vicki Kennedy, his wife — as he said: she loved me for me, and he put that me in italics, which meant that somebody loved him for who he was, not for what he might become — which meant that he could look more honestly at how hard it was to be the ninth kid in that incredibly overachieving family.

With the book, he got a chance to interpret his own political contributions and, in a way, I think, tried to cast himself in terms of history. What's your view on what he thought of his place in history?

On the one hand, it's the story of the Kennedy family from the inside, told by the only one of the brothers who had a chance to write a memoir. But at the same time, as you suggest, it also is the story of Teddy Kennedy.

And what you see throughout is that increasing pride that he took in his role as a senator -- that it really was the natural role to fit his temperament.

On a personal level, the book, I think, reveals a lot about Ted Kennedy, the man who had to find his own direction in a family of very high-profile political achievers, business achievers, who had to also deal with the family tragedies and his own personal shortcomings, doesn't it?

Absolutely. I mean, that's what I think readers will be able to take away from the book. Because he talks pretty unsparingly about what it was like to be in boarding schools when he was a little kid, being planted from one school to the other.

He was at that time overweight, he was sometimes behind the classes, and he talked about how difficult that was. And I think the answer to him in those days was to be upbeat and try to make friends, but the pain is still there.

But as he sorted the memory through in the book, he says he's now come to understand why they had to do that,  but you can feel that pain that is still raw. And then on top of that, there are these extraordinary, overachieving brothers and sisters who were not only older, but — as he said — they seemed more superior, they seemed smarter than he was, and he was always behind the eight ball trying to catch up.

It's interesting, because he is incredibly candid in the book in a lot of areas, especially when it comes to his own personal failings. He called the cheating incident on the Harvard Spanish exam, which got him thrown out of the university, "immature, extremely poor, wrong decision."

On the Chappaquiddick incident — the car accident which caused the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, the passenger in the car — he accepts very plainly responsibility and says "he caused an innocent woman's death." That honesty is jarring, and almost disarming in a way.

I think we're really hearing the man talking as he came to accept his failings and to put them in balance against what he liked to believe and I think truly can believe are the good things that he's done in his life.

There seems to be just flat-out language: "this was inexcusable," "this was wrong," "I made terrible decisions." Normally, politicians don't talk that way. And then especially when he says that one of the hardest things about Chappaquiddick was that he believed that when his father learned about it, that that hastened his father's death.

And what you see also is how much that father is the central figure in his childhood. He has that incredible passage where he says the father said to him: "I'll always love you Teddy, but if you're not serious about your life, I just won't have time for you, because there's so many other kids doing so many interesting things in your family, I'll have to give them time."

And he repeats that later on, almost as if: Well, I did become serious about my life, I did interesting things, and I'd like to believe my father would be proud of me.

In the big picture, I think that when a lot of people read this book, what they might be struck with was how this man of power, wealth and privilege was humble.  Fallible and accepting of those failures — especially in this book, but in the end, a pretty humble guy.

He owed a lot to many and he tried, I think, to repay that by making sure he mentioned them and what he owed to them in this book.

He talked about his staff and how he couldn't have done it without them; talked about Vicki;  talked about his family; had the sense in which his brother Jack had been a mentor to him, as Bobby had been before that; and that he knew that he had been shaped by a lot of other people, and that also he'd been given the length of years that his brothers had not, that allowed him to build up slowly a set of accomplishments that he really could be proud of.

At the beginning of the conversation, I asked you what you thought he would think about his place in history. I want to ask you at the close of the conversation, as a historian, how do you think he will be remembered in a generation?

When you look at what he accomplished as a senator, he will go down as one of the great senators.

It's interesting, in the 1950s, Jack Kennedy chaired a committee to look at who had the great senators of the past been. And the ones they came up with, Teddy shares qualities of all of them, in a sense:

Vandenberg: bipartisanship — Teddy did that. Henry Clay, the great legislator: getting things through the Congress — and he did that as well. And then there were people who stood for a cause, like Robert Taft: conservative, Mr. Republican, he's one of the great senators standing for a cause his whole life — you could say Teddy stood for the cause of liberalism throughout his whole life. Daniel Webster: a great orator — Teddy was a good speaker.

So all of those qualities combined, I think he will have a very honored place in the United States Senate.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, thank you very much for speaking with us today about Ted Kennedy's book, appreciate your time in your home.

Oh, you're so welcome, Bob. Absolutely.

Excerpt: "The Torch"

It was on the sunny spring day of Tuesday, May 20, 2008, that I emerged from a medicated drowsiness in a Boston hospital bed and looked up into the face of a doctor who explained to me in a somber way that I was about to die, and that I had best begin getting my affairs in order and preparing my friends and family for the end.

As I lay in that hospital bed, my friends and neighbors on Cape Cod were just then getting their boats ready for the sum-mer cruises and races. I intended to be among them, as usual. The Boston Red Sox were a good bet to defend their world championship. There was a presidential primary campaign in progress. My Senate colleagues were pushing forward on our legislative agenda. I had work to do.

No. As much as I respect the medical profession, my de-mise did not fit into my plans.

I was hardly “in denial” that I faced a grave and shocking threat to my life. The first symptoms of what would prove to be a malignant brain tumor had struck me three days earlier. They’d descended on me as I padded toward the kitchen of the Hyannis Port house that has been the center of my life and happiness for most of my seventy-six years. I was intent on nothing more than taking Sunny and Splash, my much-loved Portuguese water dogs, for their morning walk. My wife, Vicki, and I had just been chatting and having our morning coffee in the sunroom.

Life seemed especially good at that moment. The sixteen years of my marriage to Vicki had been good ones. Her acute under-standing and love of me had made her my indispensable part-ner in my life. We shared countless joyful hours aboard my an-tique wooden schooner Mya, including nights of sailing along the coast, guided by the stars. Vicki had given me such a sense of stability and tranquillity that I had almost begun to think of life in those terms—stable and tranquil. But never bor-ing. Certainly not with this funny, passionate, fiercely loyal, and loving woman.

» Read more (PDF)

This program aired on September 16, 2009.

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.


+Join the discussion

Support the news