The late Senator Ted Kennedy completed his memoir, "True Compass," before he died last month. The hefty tome was due to hit stores on September 14th, but copies have already leaked out. New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney began reading a leaked copy of the 532-page book yesterday. He talks to us about the book's revelations on Kennedy's feelings on the infamous incident at Chappaquiddick, and his relationships with his brothers Robert and John F. Kennedy.
Celeste Headlee for The Takeaway: The memoir of the late Senator Ted Kennedy wasn’t due to be released until later this month, but it has been leaked. The book is called “True Compass”; it has new revelations about Kennedy’s feelings after Chappaquiddick and his relationships with his brothers, Robert and John F. Kennedy. It wasn’t due to hit stores until September 14th, but Adam Nagourney at our partners, the New York Times, was one of the reporters who began reading a leaked copy of the book yesterday afternoon. Adam, you had some fast reading to do.
Adam Nagourney: Yes, that’s right. There were four of us with John Broder and Carl Hulse leading the way. Reading about I guess 550 pages in .. it felt like half an hour.
Celeste Headlee: So which part were you responsible for reading? What part of his life did you end up covering?
Adam Nagourney: I ended up reading a decent amount of it, but the parts that I read were the parts around Vietnam and also the parts when he was Senator under Clinton and also Senator under Reagan. And then I read over some of the stuff. I think clearly the most interesting parts – the most newsworthy parts – were what he said about Chappaquiddick. I think that’s what you are going to see most of the discussion of the book focused on. There’s some nuance here compared to what he said what happened thirty or forty years ago.
John Hockenberry for The Takeaway: This is really an attempt to get the last word on something that Teddy Kennedy has consistently not addressed in virtually all of his political life.
Celeste Headlee: He hasn’t said much about it.
Adam Nagourney: Let me see if I can summarize this right without being judgmental or anything. What he basically says is this: He did not have a romantic relationship with Mary Jo Kopechne. He said ... I’m assuming listeners know the basic outline of this story. They basically met that night. He said, at least implicitly, that they had been drinking. They had been at a party with six or eight people on Chappaquiddick. He began driving her back and he said he started driving her back because she wanted to go home and they were bored with the party. And assume that they were drinking and he drove off a bridge. And he said that what happened after that was a moment of what I think he would fairly say a combination of panic, and I think a period which I think he feels extremely remorseful.
Celeste Headlee: He called it “inexcusable”, his actions.
Adam Nagourney: Inexcusable. Right. And raises the prospect that the delay in reporting it to the policecause there was a seven-hour delay – was because in part of political reasons but also because he said he was traumatized. He knew what it would do to his family; he knew what it would do to her family. He was extremely upset – and did not remotely present himself as the victim here – she was the victim and expressed remorse that because of his own reputation as a womanizer at the time that the public assumed that she was also part of that circle, which she wasn’t. Which struck me as kind of striking. People have to read it on their own and decide whether or not they accept it, but it seems like a pretty strong argument.
John Hockenberry: And it is certainly the most he said on the subject. But, you know, not to make any excuses for Senator Ted Kennedy, but it seems to me that this folds into a larger theme of the book and that is the difficulty of being a Kennedy and not only that, but the difficulty of being Teddy Kennedy after Jack and Bobby.
Adam Nagourney: That’s a great point, especially the second part of what you said. It’s not just being a Kennedy, which, of course, is tough. It’s tough being a part of what this country has closest to a royal family. But to be this brother, after watching your two brothers die, and what struck me – and I guess I heard him say this at the Times or in some interviews – but when he talked about how nervous he would get when he was walking along and would hear a car backfire. And there’s another anecdote – I don’t remember the year because we read the thing in two minutes – where he literally jumped to the ground because a car backfired or a firecracker went off. This is a guy who was constantly afraid of getting assassinated. And that’s not an irrational thing. I think that’s one of the reasons why – and I don’t mean to play psychoanalyst here – that he was so ambivalent about running for president in the 1980s. You recall that’s when he ran for president in a fairly disastrous campaign against Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primary and lost. I think that he understood what happened to his brothers and he felt very demoralized about politics. He talks about that a bit in the book, too. So it is very tough being the third Kennedy, especially the third Kennedy in public office, especially considering what happened to his brothers.
Celeste Headlee: Adam Nagourney, reporter for the New York Times, I haven’t read the book, but from what I’ve seen, we don’t actually get new details out of here, but what we’re seeing is that he is admitting to some of his psychological journey. He talks about his father sponsoring a lot of competition between the brothers and what effect that had on him. He talks about falling apart and falling into heavy heavy drinking after the assassination of Robert and what effect that had on his family. And he takes responsibility, it sounds like, for his actions, his choices and what they did to the rest of his family.
Adam Nagourney: The one thing I cannot tell you is basically what you just said: How much of this breaks new ground, like in terms of what we do in this business, how much of this is N-E-W news. And I think we need to defer to biographers like Adam Clymer and people who have written about him for that. But your point is right. I think you get a sense of the texture of the guy, who he is, a personal view of the struggle, and also the sense of remorse and also accomplishment over the years. I read this in a weird way, you get chunks of chapters and read them out of order, then you go back and read some stuff and I didn’t read the whole book yet ...
John Hockenberry: Adam, you said you were responsible for the Reagan years, which raises the question to me ... because those were the years where he really got the fire in the belly and became the left legislative leader in the Senate. Does he talk about that?
Adam Nagourney: Yes. There was an anger from him towards Reagan that was visceral and striking, and I think that really positioned him. At the same time he expresses frustrations with people he describes as what he thought were to the left of the party who moved to the center in response to what they saw as the Reagan time. People who voted for the Reagan cuts in spending and the Reagan tax cuts. I don’t want to say he had contempt for him, but he clearly did not like Reagan at all. He talks about one point where he got called into the Oval Office with about ten other senators and members of Congress to talk about shoe and textile tariffs. Reagan brought them in there, they were told they were half an hour, tops, and Reagan sits there and looks at Kennedy’s shoes and goes, ‘Those are Bostonians, aren’t they?’ And Kennedy looks at them and he is thinking to himself ‘I didn’t look at what shoes I was wearing when I put them on this morning’, so he says, ‘I didn’t really know what they are Mr. President.’ But then for the next twenty minutes, Reagan talked about those shoes and other people’s shoes in the meeting and how he used to sell shoes for his father because, remember, his father was a shoe salesman in I think Illinois. And twenty minutes went by, and all of a sudden half an hour went by, and they never got to address ...
Celeste Headlee: ... He just talked about shoes the whole time.
Adam Nagourney: Yeah. I want to be clear: I do not think that Kennedy was saying that Reagan wasn’t smart, which is one of the raps that some people have about Reagan. I don’t think he was saying that at all.
Celeste Headlee: He got a dig in here.
Adam Nagourney: But he outmaneuvered these guys. I think he was angry, so he brought a certain level of indignation and anger and focus to his left liberal sort of agenda.