three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
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A Memoir

A-True CompassEdward M. Kennedy served as a U.S. senator for Massachusetts for 46 years. He died of brain cancer in August.

The Topic: Ted Kennedy was the survivor of his storied clan: not only did he escape the grisly fate of his older brothers, but he endured a series of scandals and setbacks to become the third longest-serving senator in American history, as well as one of the most influential. While covering his entire life, Kennedy’s autobiography is notable for its focus on family, particularly his relationship with his father, Joseph. While Kennedy discloses few gossipy revelations, he does address his ongoing regret over the accident at Chappaquiddick that some say ended his hopes for the presidency. He also reflects on the personalities of the many political notables he came to know over the years, including presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama.
Twelve. 532 pages. $35. ISBN: 9780446539258

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Tim Rutten

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"After a life chronicled in tabloid chatter and often vicious editorial cartoons, Kennedy tells his own story here, expansively yet selectively, portraying himself as a dedicated, loving, flesh-and-blood figure who, despite being born well, had to prove himself. … This is a book that all but the most toxic Kennedy critic could love." Matthew V. Storin

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"If the writing about his marriage and Chappaquiddick in True Compass does not exactly seem introspective, neither does it ring false, and the rest of his life story—filled with colorful tales of his siblings and inside-the-Beltway detail—makes for a thoughtful, intermittently gut-wrenching read." Tina Jordan

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"True Compass has the narrative drive of a book written in the shadow of the grim reaper. … For anyone who has grown up with the fables of Jack and Jackie, this is an absorbing tour of the Kennedy backlot." Robert McCrum

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[He] writes in these pages with searching candor about the losses, joys and lapses of his life. … The tribulations of the Kennedy family have frequently been likened to something out of Shakespeare or a Greek tragedy, but Teddy Kennedy manages the difficult task in these pages of conveying the profoundly ordinary, human dimensions of his and his family’s losses." Michiko Kakutani

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"True Compass is an engaging and at times moving book, but like virtually all political autobiographies these days, it has the air of having been written by committee. … Fortunately, though, there really isn’t all that much gassing here, because what interests Kennedy most is his family, press-the-flesh politicking and the ups and downs of his own uncommonly interesting life." Jonathan Yardley

Times (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"True Compass has the lethally bland narrative tone of the ghostwritten US presidential autobiography, with its mandatory reflections on the importance of religious faith and public service, and its subject’s complementary aversion to self-exploration. … But for the rest, True Compass shows us the worst side of the Kennedy clan in all its hauteur, self-importance and tawdry sense of entitlement." Stephen Robinson

Critical Summary

Few reviewers doubted the significance of Kennedy’s memoir, written in collaboration with Ron Powers, and most viewed it as an interesting read. The Los Angeles Times rated it as an American political classic on par with The Autobiography of U. S. Grant. But the Washington Post deflated the comparison, claiming that while Grant had some help writing his book, Kennedy’s clearly shows the influence of his ghostwriter and should be viewed as a typical (if sometimes fascinating) celebrity autobiography. While most critics tended to side with Yardley on the book’s literary merit, they all appreciated the various ideas and anecdotes from its pages, suggesting that most readers with an interest in American politics will, too.