True Compass

Kennedy True Compass

Book Review of Edward Kennedy True Compass

The main focus of True Compass is Edward Kennedy's biography. It starts with his early upbringing in a house full of wealth, influence, and politics and details all the way through Kennedy's early military training and years as an attorney to his esteemed career in the Senate through the Reagan and Bush years. Its key focus is on his work as a politician, and as such it gives tremendous insight into all the aspects of the role of Senators in U.S. government. Since he has been an influential U.S. politician for decades, the book discusses many of the major historical events in contemporary U.S. history, including the election of his brother to President, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and Watergate. It is also interesting for its discussion of Edward's relationship with the other major characters -- all the Kennedys, but especially his father and his brothers, John and Jack, whom he calls heroic brothers, and with the President. It abounds with references to all kinds of important figures whose decisions have shaped American policy. The principal ideas are personal reflections on family and politics. In recreating his own history, there is a thread of ideas all throughout that relate to U.S. history from the time that Kennedy became involved. It is a partial list of ideas, but what he gives is a glimpse into the way the political system operates.

Without question, Edward Kennedy is an expert in politics. He has lived his entire life under its influence. At Harvard he learned to grasp national and international politics, after having witnessed his own father's achievements as an ambassador during WWII. His father was largely responsible for his ethical training, giving him important advice all along about responsible behavior and how to deal with the pressures of public image. For example, his father's advice that "there will be no crying in this house" meant that one developed a hard insular shell against external criticisms -- something essential for a politician. Most important in establishing the author's credentials, besides family pedigree, is the fact of Kennedy's longevity in the Senate. The decades he has seen in government give him authority to speak on it.

One of the things I learned in this book is the way political campaigns were worked in the 1950s. The description of Edward's help on his brother's presidential campaign gives a lot of insight into the travelling, speeches, organizing volunteers, interviews, political alliances, and personal contacts that are formed in the process. Another interesting thing learned was that John Kennedy changed through the Bay of Pigs fiasco to be skeptical of military advice (Kennedy 177). This was an important example of how good political leaders learn through experience. Among the many political insights of this biography, I learned Kennedy's involvement in the civil rights legislation of the 1960s (such as ending segregation, starting the Jobs Corps, etc.) and his concern for Soviet Jews during the Cold War. What is just as interesting is his description of how he and his brother rarely worked together although both were Senators. They were on different committees with different interests. Kennedy was interested in civil rights and immigration, while his brother was concerned more with the Vietnam War (at least at first). This is informative of the way the political system works, in which the Senators are largely determined in their actions and ability to institute legislation on the basis of what committee they are on. However, since Kennedy's view on the war changed over time, as he got more involved, it also shows how politicians can shift. In addition, this biography speaks to the role of Senators in drafting legislation based both on information they get and on interviews they conduct.

One of the messages of the book is that Edward Kennedy was always publicly minded. He loved and wanted to be involved in public service. The way this argument is made is through examples of the various experiences he had as a lawyer and political campaigner, as well as specific examples like his work on the Cancer Crusade. This argument works well because it shows the direct evidence of his commitment to doing…