The Magazine

Ted's Last Hurrah

The authorized version of the Kennedy myth receives one more installment.

Sep 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 02 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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"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.