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Ted Kennedy’s memoir finally to be published in September

August 26, 2009
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy as a young legislator.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy as a young legislator.

Ted Kennedy should best be remembered as the embodiment of “noblesse oblige,” an antique virtue little in fashion in contemporary America.

As encomiums roll in from all points on the political spectrum for Sen. Kennedy, who died last night at 77, Grand Central Publishing announced his long-awaited memoir will be released in September, The New York Times reports today.

True Compass, a 544-page book written with Ron Powers (Flags of Our Fathers), was five years in the making. Kennedy received an $8 million advance for the memoir, not out of line with other high-profile political autobiographies.

The book will include Kennedy’s nearly half-century in Washington, where he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962 as a young and lightly considered politician. Over the decades he grew to be the leading liberal voice in Congress, working tirelessly for the poor, the handicapped, and the working man.

Kennedy leaves a sterling legacy, especially for a man born to privilege, the youngest son of Joe and Rose Kennedy, and the brother of Sen. Robert Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy. That legacy includes not only the work he did, but the way in which he conducted himself.

During a quick coffee run this morning, I heard testimony on NPR that Kennedy is respected by his fiercest conservative opponents because he always treated them with grace. He never lost his temper with staff members — apparently a rarity in Congress — and frequently answered mail from citizens personally.

One caller said she had written to Kennedy many times over the years — she has a handicapped family member — and each letter prompted a reply from the senator. He was a man who really cared about common people, she said.

This makes me think Kennedy embodied that disappearing trait, noblesse oblige–the idea that the wealthy and privileged are obliged to help those less fortunate. I once interviewed a minor novelist, who had written a young adult novel I admired, only to find he was a ranting racist, certain that Jews were destroying civilization, blacks were subhuman, women inferior.

But he also despised the country’s WASP elite, who, he said, had abdicated their responsibility to lead American civilization. They had abandoned their duty of noblesse oblige, opening the door for lesser groups and also for big-government socialism. Okay, he was a nut, rotten with hate. My editor and I decided not to give him a forum, and I never wrote the story. But the concept of noblesse oblige, even if he twisted it in a wicked direction, stayed with me.

Why shouldn’t the privileged feel such a responsibility? Of course, Kennedy is not the only wealthy person nowadays practicing something close to noblesse oblige. Ted Turner, Bill Gates, George Soros, Michael Eisner, Teresa Heinz Kerry — these are only a few who have made impressive contributions of time, money and resources.

Kennedy’s contribution came in the coin of public service, though, and that leaves him a singular example we all, whatever our political orientation, can admire and some of us, I hope, can emulate.

Kennedy certainly was not perfect — though it would be ill mannered to mention drinking, womanizing or Chappaquiddick today –but the virtues Kennedy did embody are what prompts his political opponents to praise him.

When Kennedy was diagnosed with brain cancer last year, Sen. John McCain said, “Sen. Kennedy’s role in the U.S. Senate cannot be overstated. He is a legendary lawmaker, and I have the highest respect for him.”

“While we didn’t see eye to eye on many political issues through the years,” former President George H.W. Bush said in a statement, ‘I always respected his steadfast public service.”

“Teddy taught us all that public service isn’t a hobby or even an occupation,” former First Lady Nancy Reagan said today, “but a way of life and his legacy will live on.”

And on Sept. 14, we will be able to read Kennedy’s own version of how he became the man being remembered so fondly today.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    August 26, 2009 2:24 pm

    Just the other day I heard a bit on NPR about how the new high school in Miami is being named after Alonzo and Tracy Mourning, for their charitable contributions and good work in the community. It struck me then, why don’t all rich, successful people give back? With both time and money they have the ability to make a significant change. And I didn’t even know that there was a specific term for it, noblesse oblige. How sad it is that this is fading. And how sad it is to lose such an influential, generous, and caring public servant.

  2. Candice permalink
    August 26, 2009 8:37 pm

    Here’s to Senator Kennedy. I love forward to reading the book.

  3. Alexis permalink
    August 26, 2009 10:21 pm

    I heard something on NPR about how it was never about the spotlight with Kennedy. It was about public service. It’s unfortunate we lost him at this critical time, but we should feel lucky we had him for so long.

  4. August 27, 2009 10:08 am

    Hello Chauncey and fellow writers. I just returned from Massachusetts. I lived there for 43 years. I knew the Family and worked with Ted on projects over the years. Every once and a while a person comes along that will not be replaced. He is such a person. He had his struggles along the way but never lost sight about helping people. Just look at the many bills he passed to help people. The people of this country will miss him. I am glad I had a chance to work with him and his family. Both he and Vicki did get a chance to travel to PurpleUmpkin. For that I am happy. I was also lucky enough to thank him and his family for what they gave to my family, before he went. For that I am forever great full.

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