“The graveyards of the world,” Charles De Gaulle once said, “are filled with indispensable men.”
The eloquent shrug of Gallic irony aside, the living do walk away, even from the graves of the great and good, and history -- which is life in the aggregate -- simply goes on. Yet it does no justice to the living or the dead to pretend that some losses do not diminish us in ways that impoverish our collective experience and strip away a bit of life’s savor.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s recent death was such a loss, and “True Compass,” his touchingly candid, big-hearted and altogether superb memoir, demonstrates precisely why. Completed in the shadow of the senator’s own mortality, this is a book whose clarity of recollection and expression entitles it to share in the lineage established by America’s first great memoir of public life -- “The Autobiography of U.S. Grant,” which he wrote while himself dying of cancer.
There are, of course, fundamental differences: The former president and Union commander was a 19th century man setting down a public life; Kennedy is very much a man of our time, open to exploring the interplay of his inner and outer lives. Grant wrote his autobiography; although Kennedy was a devoted diarist whose natural gifts as a storyteller and as a sharp, painterly observer shine through every page, he was ably assisted not only by the writer -- and Twain biographer -- Ron Powers, but also by his wife, Vicki Reggie, and a variety of scholars, particularly those associated with the University of Virginia’s oral history project.
All the Kennedy brothers were known for their superb staffs -- Teddy, most of all.
In the weeks leading up to Monday’s publication of “True Compass,” much of the obvious “news” in this book was leaked to the press, particularly his bitter regrets over his “inexcusable” behavior during the Chappaquiddick tragedy, the night of heavy drinking that resulted in rape allegations against one of his nephews, and the failure of his first marriage. What’s far more remarkable about this memoir is its capacious and generous spirit.
In some sense, conscious of the fact that the three older brothers he so deeply admired never lived to set down their own recollections, the youngest Kennedy brother has written a portrait of his extraordinary family, as well as an account of his own eventful life. There’s something extraordinary -- and deeply affecting -- about the affection expressed for Joe and Rose Kennedy, despite a childhood lived under circumstances which, while economically privileged, many today would consider harsh, demanding and, in ways, even abusive. Yet no word of reproach escapes the youngest son, who loved them both to the end. There’s a section on his maternal grandfather, the legendary Boston mayor Honey Fitz, that political junkies will savor. The colorful, canny old man’s influence on Ted long has been underestimated, and many of the gifts that made the senator so effective and well-liked on both sides of the aisle descended through the Fitzgerald line and through careful observation of the old fox at work. As Kennedy writes, “His simple bequest to me has been more precious than any fortune. Love life, and believe in it.”
There’s that sort of nonpartisan generosity of spirit in Kennedy’s appraisal of the presidents with whom he worked. He esteems Lyndon Johnson as the greatest president since Franklin Roosevelt, while lamenting the indelible stain the Vietnam debacle left on his reputation. He clearly disliked Jimmy Carter, whom he charges with a pettiness and the genuine politician’s greatest sin -- a failure “to listen.” He found Ronald Reagan gracious and charming and remained Nancy’s fast friend, admired both Clintons and enjoyed George W. Bush’s sense of humor, while finding Laura a first lady of real grace and poise.
There’s a wonderful self-appraisal: “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.”
There’s a kind of invocation -- a spell, if you will -- against melancholy in that summary, for much of this memoir, affectionate though it remains, is haunted by loss: of family, friends, comrades, opportunities. In his life’s final chapter, Kennedy seemed to have found the ultimate shield against the darkness in the loving relationship he enjoyed with his second wife, Vicki, a Southern-born lawyer of Lebanese heritage with two young children, whom the much older senator clearly adored. Somehow all that comes through in -- what else? -- a political anecdote from Kennedy’s desperately hard-fought 1994 reelection campaign. While the couple were attending a Lebanese cultural festival in northeastern Massachusetts, Kennedy encountered an elderly Lebanese woman who pulled Vicki aside and demanded:
“ ‘So, honey, is he good to you?’ Vicki said yes, he is good to me. The woman asked, ‘Do you love him?’ Vicki said she loved me. And then the most important question of all, ‘Does he eat Lebanese food?’ Vicki said yes, I did, I loved Lebanese food. Then, in what Vicki described as the comforting tones of an Arabic-accented English that reminded my wife of her beloved grandmother, and while making the sign of the cross, the old woman said, ‘OK, honey, I’m gonna vote for him for the first time in my life.’ ”
If one were pressed to tease an epitaph for Ted Kennedy from the pages, the process would have to begin with the recognition that he unselfconsciously cast his own life as a story of interlocking loves -- for life, his family, his church, his Irish heritage, his Democratic Party and its policies, for the U.S. Senate and for American politics. Then the question becomes: What sort of man was the lover?
Ted was, in important ways, like his idolized brother John -- of whom he said in a 20th anniversary eulogy: “He was an heir to wealth who felt the anguish of the poor. He was an orator of excellence, who spoke for the voiceless. He was a son of Harvard who reached out to the sons and daughters of Appalachia. He was a man of special grace who had a special care for the retarded and handicapped. . . . He said and proved in word and deed that one man can make a difference.”
Yet, as alike as they were, Ted was uniquely his own man. In his 1982 reelection campaign, one of Ted’s television commercials featured an 83-year-old senior citizens’ advocate, Frank Manning, who said of the senator: “He’s not a plaster saint. . . . We want an average human being who has feelings and likes people and who is interested in their welfare.”
That, of course, is precisely what the people of Massachusetts got, and -- as “True Compass” reminds us -- we’re all the poorer for his absence.