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Ted Kennedy Jr. Reflects on His Father’s Legacy

September 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Judy Woodruff speaks with Ted Kennedy Jr. about his father's posthumously published memoir, "True Compass." The book offers new insights into Edward Kennedy's famous family and his political career, including the dark moments.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, new insights into Edward Kennedy’s life and legacy from the senator himself. In a book published posthumously this week, Kennedy shares memories of his famous family and his political career, including the dark moments.

Yesterday, I sat down with Ted Kennedy, Jr., to talk about his father’s autobiography.

It’s so good to have you with us.

TED KENNEDY, JR.: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we sit here, it’s been three weeks since your father passed away. How is your family doing?

TED KENNEDY, JR.: It’s been an incredible, you know, emotional experience, you know, experiencing people who have come up and just sharing with me, you know, the wonderful working relationship they had with my father.

But then, just this afternoon, I went to my father’s Senate office to talk to his staff and to thank his staff. And, you know, I just couldn’t hold it together, because, you know, so many of these people have just given their whole lives to my father.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The book, “True Compass,” tell us about when he started working on it and how he wrote it, because he was sick for much of the time he worked on this.

TED KENNEDY, JR.: Yes, he was. Well, writing a memoir is something that my father has wanted to do for several years, so he had actually begun writing this book a number of years ago.

And you and I talked about, you know, just before this broadcast how he took contemporaneous notes of his experiences, his meetings with different presidents, his opinions about different political moments in our country’s history. He really wanted to set the record straight. I mean, you know that so many books have been written about the Kennedys — some good, some bad, of course — and many more will be written.

Family secrets revealed

JUDY WOODRUFF: You've remarked that, in the book, he got into telling about how he experienced a lot of personal things in his life.

TED KENNEDY, JR.: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Were these things he just didn't talk about when he was alive?

TED KENNEDY, JR.: Yeah. No, he never did. He never talked to me about like, for example, having to, you know, tell my grandfather that Jack had been killed, for example, a situation he recounts in this story, or so many other events because, you know, I think just growing up in an Irish-Catholic family, you know, we just don't -- just never -- really wasn't part of our story to tell, talk, you know, share these deep emotions with one another.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I wanted to ask you about that, because you said at one point that you didn't know what to expect from the book. Do you feel you didn't really understand him until after he was gone and you read the book?

TED KENNEDY, JR.: No. Of course, I think -- my dad and I were -- had an incredible relationship, a very close relationship, so I feel like I really understood him. But I wasn't expecting the level of how deep he got into the emotional part of his life, because he felt like he had to be strong for all of us, Judy.

And another thing is that what comes out in the book is his deep Catholicism. And I think people are kind of surprised, quite honestly, when they find out, you know, how religious and faithful that he really was, because he never talked about it.

Ted Kennedy the father

JUDY WOODRUFF: So much of the book -- at the first part of the book is about his father, about what a huge role his father, Joseph Kennedy, played in his life. How did that shape the kind of father he was?

TED KENNEDY, JR.: Well, I think he had, you know, a formal relationship with his father, very loving relationship. But the relationship that my father and I had was a, you know, very different one.

And so, you know, it was still strict. My father had very high expectations of me, Judy. And I think -- and he had that same conversation with me that his father had with him, which was, you know, "Teddy, you're going to have to make up your mind what kind of life you're going to lead. You're either going to lead a productive or serious life or you're not. And if you want to lead a productive life, I'm going to be here every single step of the way to make sure you achieve those goals. And if you don't, I'll love you just the same, but, you know, I'm not going to stand around and wait for you to make up your mind."

JUDY WOODRUFF: He also wrote -- of course, there was so much tragedy and pain in his life, and he wrote about how he just had to keep going, keep moving. I mean, there are points in the book where it feels like it must have been exhausting to be Ted Kennedy.

TED KENNEDY, JR.: I think the reason why he kept moving is because he had so much building up inside of him that he just felt like he needed to pack, you know, every minute of every day, and just to kind of keep from sitting still and thinking too much about the things that were bothering him in his life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Did you ever try to persuade him to slow down?

TED KENNEDY, JR.: You know, there were things that perhaps he did that, you know, disappointed me. But I realized that, you know what? This was a pretty incredible human being. And, you know, we're not all 100 percent, you know, good or bad, and, you know, he's a terrific parent, but I'm sure every child would say about their parent, "I wish they wouldn't do this or wouldn't do that."

Kennedy's unlikely friendships

JUDY WOODRUFF: One question about politics. Did he think of himself as a divisive figure? I mean, we know all the stories about Republicans went out and raised all this money, telling folks, you know, "Ted Kennedy's going to take over unless you contribute money to this."

TED KENNEDY, JR.: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did he deal with all of that?

TED KENNEDY, JR.: You know, I grew up, you know, a few short miles from here, in McLean, Virginia. And I remember, you know -- I mean, you know, Donald Rumsfeld and Lowell Weicker and Alan Simpson, Paul Laxalt...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republicans.

TED KENNEDY, JR.: ... these were all Republicans, were dinner guests at our house and tennis -- they would come over and play tennis with my dad. And they'd all eat breakfast together and drive into the Capitol.

And, you know, it was just a different day. And, yes, they would criticize each other, but you know what? They never really -- my dad never really, you know, took it personally.

And I think one of the reasons why he was being, you know, honored by so many of his Republican counterparts is because they liked him. And, you know, they knew that he was -- you know, he was a different breed of cat, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ted Kennedy, Jr., talking about his father's book, "True Compass." Thank you very much.

TED KENNEDY, JR.: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can watch more of that interview with Ted Kennedy, Jr., on our Web site, newshour.pbs.org.