A Conversation with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy
A: For as long as I can remember, I had planned to write my memoirs. I wanted to tell the story of my life and describe some of the history I've witnessed and been part of. I'm a student of history, a lifelong reader, so I've always thought it would be the right thing to do at the right time.
In 2004, I began an extensive series of interviews at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. They've undertaken the Edward M. Kennedy Oral History Project, covering my life and career. As I prepared for the interviews, I looked at more than 50 years of contemporaneous personal notes that I'd kept along the way. And as the process of the interviews evolved, I reflected more and more deeply on aspects of my life and experiences. I felt it was time to begin writing my memoirs.
A: About two years ago, in addition to the material drawn from my personal notes and the oral history project, I began collaborating with a wonderful writer, Ron Powers. Ron and I, and my editor and publisher Jon Karp, spent hours and hours together in Washington, Key Biscayne and Hyannis Port. I talked until I was hoarse. I also answered page after page of follow-up questions that Ron and Jon had after our meetings. Then Ron would submit his draft. I remembered how the great biographer David McCullough told me that his wife, Rosalie, would read every word of his manuscript aloud to him after he wrote one of his books, and that helped him to hear how it sounded so he could make his changes. My wife, Vicki, and I decided to follow that same approach. So she would read the draft aloud to me, and we'd refine it, word by word. Often, I remembered other things that were triggered by hearing the words read out loud, and I would dictate them on the spot. All in all, the process was very rewarding and I hope very successful.
A: Well, I'm not the best judge of that, but I talk about my feelings and I always complete my sentences—two things I'm told I haven't always done that well in the past.
Q: Is there any news in the book?
A: Again, I'm not the best judge. I've never discussed Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson and my brothers, Jack and Bobby, in this much depth. I think people may be intrigued about what I have to say about my 1980 presidential campaign—about all that led up to it and the long battle that had to be waged afterward for progressive principles. I've offered my perspectives on working with President Nixon, President Reagan, President Clinton and several Bushes. Believe it or not, I met the first President Bush's father—and the second President Bush's grandfather, Sen. Prescott Bush, when I was in law school. Then, when I first got to the Senate, I actually served briefly with him.
A: I mentioned that I've been taking notes for 50 years, but I thought I'd lost some of them, and I was amazed by what I found—a detailed account of campaigning for Jack across the country in 1960, including the stump speech I delivered with my handwritten notes scrawled on it. It brought back such wonderful memories, and that speech was also proof of just how far we've come. We were campaigning for Medicare then! And federal funding for education. We were also dealing with the challenge of electing the first Catholic president, and my notes reminded me just how tough it was to find the right way to talk about that issue with people.
Q: What was the most difficult part of writing the book?
A: It's hard to relive painful memories, the losses and the tragedies. But they're an indelible part of my life. And I wanted to tell the full story, candidly, so it's all there. What happened. What I've learned. The people I've known. What I believe, what I've seen and what I feel.
A: I've never dug this deep, and I couldn't have done it if Vicki wasn't there to encourage me. My generation wasn't brought up to talk this personally, and she really helped me figure out how to do it in a way that was true to my values and to who I am, and I hope, interesting to readers.
A: There are a lot of myths about my family and me. I didn't waste words in the book refuting myths. I also didn't write about things I didn't know about personally. I was very careful about telling my own story, rather than Jack's story or Bobby's story or my father's story. For example, a lot of people assume I knew everything about Jack's presidency, but we were only together in Washington for one year, and I was a 30-year-old senator trying to learn my way. I've described what I know from my own perspective; the complete account is for the historians. My perspective of my family is that of a loving brother and son. I knew them in a way that only a few people did, and that's what I wanted to share with readers. It's honest and true, and it's mine.
Q: This book was originally scheduled for publication in 2010. Did you accelerate work because of your illness?
A: Sure, but we didn't cut any corners. Vicki and I have been through every word of this book multiple times. It's exactly the book I wanted it to be.
Q: Why did you decide to call it True Compass?
A: Sailing has always been part of my life. I have so many happy memories of times at sea, with family and friends. And the phrase "true compass" is a good metaphor for how I've tried to live.
Q: What's the ultimate message of the book?
A: Perseverance. Stand up for what you believe and always look forward with hope.