Uncovering Ted Kennedy's 'True Compass'
Book editor Jonathan Karp worked closely with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in the final year of the senator's life, getting to know the man behind the public persona, sifting through a half century of papers and finding out Kennedy's deepest feelings about family controversies, successes and tragedies
Other segments from the episode on September 14, 2009
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Uncovering Ted Kennedyâs âTrue Compassâ
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. Senator Edward Kennedyâs memoir, âTrue
Compass,â was published today. He was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor
after he had begun work on the book, and died the day a copy of the final book
arrived at his home. Kennedyâs collaborator on the book was Ron Powers. Kennedy
also worked closely with the editor and publisher of âTrue Compass,â my guest,
Jonathan Karp. Karp is the publisher and editor-in-chief of TWELVE, which
publishes twelve books a year. Heâs the former editor-in-chief of the Random
House Publishing Group. One of the sources the memoir draws from is the 50
years of personal notes and diaries Kennedy kept, beginning with his brother
John F. Kennedyâs presidential campaign. Jonathan Karp read this collection
while working with Kennedy on the book.
Jonathan Karp, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What was your role in working with
Teddy Kennedy on his book?
Mr.Â JONATHAN KARP (Publisher, Editor-in-chief, TWELVE): I was his editor and
his publisher. We signed him up approximately two years ago. We had our first
meeting with him - I remember it was actually on Rosh Hashanah of 2007. Andâ¦
GROSS: Thatâs almost exactly two years ago.
Mr.Â KARP: Exactly, and itâs been the most extraordinary editorial experience of
Mr.Â KARP: Well, to work with somebody who was at the center of 50 years of
American history is something that very few editors ever have the opportunity
to do, and then also to see a personal side of him that I think very few people
had the privilege of being able to see - both of those factors had something to
do with it. Then on top of it, he was inspiring. He was an inspiring man to be
with, and to see him at the end of his life, confronting it all with such
courage, it was simply amazing.
GROSS: You signed him to write this memoir before he was diagnosed with a brain
tumor. How did the brain tumor diagnosis and the prognosis that he would only
have a few months affect what he wanted to say in his autobiography?
Mr.Â KARP: Well, you know, I actually donât think that the prognosis really
affected things all that much. I think what it did is it told us that time was
short, and we had to move very quickly. But when we met with him about two
years ago, as I said, his lawyer, Bob Barnett(ph), arranged a meeting for me
and my colleagues, and we took the train to Washington, D.C., and met at his
home with him and his wife Vicki. And it was very clear from the outset that he
was setting out to write a work of history, a work of personal history, and
that he wanted this book very much to be a legacy. This was a man who cared
deeply about history, and all you had to do was walk into his personal study,
and youâd see that. There were â his library was full of books by all of the
major contemporary historians, people like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael
Beschloss and Robert Carrow, and he wanted to make his own contribution. He
felt like heâd seen a lot, and he wanted to tell his story.
GROSS: After he was given a few months, at most, by doctors, he writes in the
book: I respect the seriousness of death. Iâve had many occasions to meditate
on its intrusions, but I wasnât willing to accept the doctorsâ prognosis. He
had seen, you know, his children survive the odds. Heâd seen other people
survive the odds, and he wanted to have hope and not live with the idea that he
was just going to die in a few months. Did you think he was changed after the
diagnosis, that he lived his life any differently?
Mr. KARP: I donât. I think â first of all, the interesting thing about that
story, because he told us that story, and what surprised me the most about it
was that when he got this diagnosis that he really only had a short time to
live, months, maybe less than that, his reaction was fury. He was furious about
the way he was given that news because he writes in the book that I donât need
to be treated with kid gloves, but I believe in hope. And he didnât really
change his hopeful approach to life, even in the light of such grim news. And
that was one of the things that I learned from him. He just took things day by
day, and when confronted with the fact that he might only have a couple of
months to live, he took care of his Senate business, he contacted his
colleagues in the Senate, who he wanted to carry on with the legislation that
he cared about. He dealt with all the family issues, and he dealt with this
There was a period after he received the news where we didnât know whether he
was going to keep writing it. Things got very quiet for a while. He had a lot
to deal with, and we gave him the space to figure out how they wanted to handle
things. And probably after about a month or so, we got a call, and you know,
the message that came back to us was that this was incredibly important to him,
and he was going to give it as much energy and time as he could give.
And I got to ask him every question I ever had, and I saw him dealing with this
illness with such resolve. And the amazing thing was I wouldnât have even known
he was confronting this if I hadnât read about it in the newspaper. I mean,
that was the amazing thing about it.
GROSS: You mean because he didnât talk about it?
Mr. KARP: He didnât complain about it. He â well, of course he talked about it,
but he didnât let it infect every conversation. He had stories to tell. He was
living his life. He was singing songs. I remember one time at lunch, he was
doing the score of âSouth Pacific.â He was living his life, and he actually
didnât spend a single day in bed until the very last day of his life.
GROSS: Kennedy had been a pretty private person, I think itâs fair to say. His
family had been the subject of so much press coverage and tabloid coverage and,
as he points out, there are about 20 books just devoted to Chappaquiddick. What
were his guidelines, his personal guidelines, about how much he wanted to open
up his life and his familyâs lives in this autobiography?
As a reader, you want to learn as much as possible, and you want people to be â
you want the writer to be as forthcoming as possible. He always had reasons in
his life to not be forthcoming. Did you talk with him about how far he was
willing to go, and did you push him to go a little further and push the limits
of his comfort zone on that?
Mr. KARP: Well, first of all, letâs talk about the indispensable ally in this
process, and that was his wife Vicki. This book would not be as good as it is
had it not been for Vicki, who was there throughout the process, who I think
encouraged Senator Kennedy to write this book and who was able to bring out in
him feelings that heâd never expressed publicly before.
GROSS: How? What would she do?
Mr. KARP: Well, we would be sitting there, and she would prod him to tell
certain stories that she knew that he hadnât told. I mean, for â one of the
best examples is the story about his son Teddyâs bout with cancer when he was
12, and itâs an incredibly powerful story in the book. And there is a scene
where Ted Kennedy is throwing a football with his son, and heâs realizing that
this may be the last time his son is able to run and catch a pass from him
because heâs going to have his leg amputated. And he describes feeling almost
overwhelmed and crushed by the emotion, and that was a story that Vicki helped
him bring out.
Now, then there was even more to the story, which is that the day of the
operation, Senator Kennedy was also supposed to be giving away his niece,
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, at her wedding, and he had this dilemma. How do I be
there for my son and also be there for my niece? And this was the oldest
Kennedy grandchild to be married, and he wanted to be there to help her
celebrate. He wanted this day to be special for her, and he somehow managed to
be there for the operation. As soon as he was told it was successful, he got
himself over to the church and walked her down the aisle. Now, thatâs not a
story that Ted Kennedy would everâ¦
GROSS: And then he returned to the hospital.
Mr. KARP: Right, and then he returned to the hospital. Thatâs not a story that
Ted Kennedy would have ever told, I think, had his wife not found that link.
And he was part of a generation that just didnât talk this way, I mean,
literally part of the silent generation. And they didnât talk about their
feelings, and in the Kennedy household, they were taught never to cry, never to
complain. And he had a real resistance to anything that might be perceived as
complaining or whining or self-justification. So it really was a challenge to
get him to talk this way, but I donât think it had very much to do with me. I
actually think it had a lot more to do with Vicki and the fact that he had
reached a moment in his life when he really wanted to do this. And at the
outset, at our very first meeting, he said: Iâm going to be candid. Iâm going
to talk about everything, including Chappaquiddick. And he said that within the
first 10 minutes of our meeting, and it put everybody at ease.
I mean, this man was â he had a great deal of emotional intelligence. He was
also a tremendously subtle man. And itâs so funny because my perception of Ted
Kennedy before I began working on this book was of a progressive who you would
see thundering from the floor of the Senate on behalf of his causes, and I had
no sense at all of the private man. And the private man was subtle and gentle
and humble, and that was all quite a big surprise to me. I mean, Iâve worked
with a lot of authors, and usually, as you say, there is a lot of self-
justification, and theyâre trying to settle scores, and thereâs a lot of ego
you have to deal with. There was none of that with Ted Kennedy, none.
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Karp. Heâs the publisher
of the book company TWELVE, and he is the publisher and editor of the late Ted
Kennedyâs new autobiography, âTrue Compass.â
Jonathan, letâs take a break here, and then weâll talk some more about the
process of editing Ted Kennedyâs book and what you learned about him in the
process. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Karp. Heâs the publisher
of the book company TWELVE. He published and edited Ted Kennedyâs new memoir,
Kennedy had 50 years of papers that he had accumulated, and that was in part
what he drew on to write his autobiography. Did you get to read those papers?
First of all, like, where did he keep them? What kind of things did he write
down, and did you get to read it?
Mr. KARP: I got to read all of them, and it was kind of an experience that
probably every historian would salivate to have. This was a guy who, after
every important meeting, would sometimes dictate notes to a tape recorder or
write them down in longhand and then have them typed, and actually, even though
the first notes that I have began in 1960, there were some notes that even
There was a memo that he â well, I donât know if youâd call it a memo. There
was a note that he dictated to his governess when he was seven, after he
received his first communion from the pope at the Vatican, and we actually
reproduced that in the special edition of the book. So it was kind of
inculcated in all the Kennedys to take notes, I guess, because this was
something that began very young.
GROSS: So what were the notes like? What would he write about every day?
Mr. KARP: Well, he was a very sharp observer and a great storyteller and a
little detached. He didnât tell you always how he felt. He just told you what
he saw and what the conversation was like, and some of the conversations were
The most eye-opening to me occurred in 1964, when he was in the hospital after
heâd suffered a near-fatal plane crash, and LBJ came to visit him. And
according to what the memo says, LBJ came into the hospital room, kissed him on
the forehead and began to talk to him about the politics of the day. They were
talking about an autoworkersâ strike and Johnsonâs re-election campaign and the
fact that Bobby might run for Senate and how LBJ would help him get elected.
And then out of nowhere in the notes, and in the conversation, LBJ shares his
belief that the FBI was culpable for the assassination of JFK, and that the
reason why the FBI should bear some responsibility for this was because they
never notified the Secret Service. They knew that Oswald was a threat, and they
didnât disclose that.
And I was reading this in the notes, and I was quite surprised to read that. I
mean, to me, that would be the equivalent of President George W. Bush blaming
the FBI for 9/11. And this was just a conversation that was occurring between
two political leaders. They moved on to the next subject right after that, and
Senator Kennedy expressed no opinion about this judgment. Itâs just there in
GROSS: So Johnson gives him this, like, revelation that maybe it could have
been stopped. Itâs reported in a neutral tone in the notes, but did Kennedy
reveal any emotion when you talked with him about this? Was he angry with the
FBI when he heard this news?
Mr. KARP: No, he was very emotional when he talked about his brother, and it
was actually one of the toughest things we had to talk about in the interview.
And he began to relive the day of the assassination and then having to tell his
father, and he actually began to cry. And I thought it was â I thought it was
so sad, actually, and also so true to who this man was that, you know, more
than 40 years later, he was still so moved by it. And he said, and he also
writes in the book, that you never get over that kind of loss, and I definitely
witnessed that firsthand.
So to be honest, I didnât actually push him too hard on some of this stuff. I
was concerned about his health. I felt as if what we already had from him was
more than sufficient. I felt that he was very open in the pages that we had.
And there were a lot of things that were already written, either from the oral
history or from his notes or from things heâd said in conversations to us, that
I didnât feel the need to bear down on because I felt like we had enough.
GROSS: How much of the writing is his voice, and how much of it was written by
his collaborator, Ron Powers, or by you?
Mr. KARP: I would say that the important material is all Ted Kennedyâs. We had
thousands of pages to work with. And Ron Powers, you know, Ron did some really
fine work on this, but he was working with extraordinarily rich material, and
it really is Senator Kennedyâs work.
GROSS: You know, youâve talked about how on the whole, Kennedy was brought up
to not show emotion, certainly not to cry. You know, his father said there will
be no crying in the Kennedy home, and â but on the other hand, you know, he
describes the grief after his brother Jackâs assassination. And I want to read
what he writes about Bobby Kennedy, and I think several people have quoted this
in their reviews of the book.
This about Bobby Kennedy: He delayed returning to his duties as attorney
general. He found it difficult to concentrate on anything or to do substantive
work. Hope seemed to have died within him, and there followed months of
unrelenting melancholia. He went through the motions of everyday life, but he
carried the burden of his grief with him always. I was so worried about Bobby
that I tried to suppress my own grief.
I guess Iâm wondering if Ted Kennedy talked to you about his own grief, the
grief that he tried to suppress at the time?
Mr. KARP: He did, and it was something Iâll never forget. We were at lunch, and
weâd been talking for a while, and heâd been telling me really wonderful
stories about his family and about his early political career, but we hadnât
really gotten to the heart of what made him tick, what was sort of going on
inside his head and in his heart. And he asked me â at one point, he kind of
turned to me and he said: So, how do you think itâs going? And I told him that.
I said, Iâm not sure I really understand how youâre feeling about things, and I
donât understand how youâve lived with all of this loss. And he heard that, and
he didnât say anything at the lunch table. He moved on. And then he went
upstairs and he took a rest. And then he came down about an hour later, and he
said thereâs something I want to talk to you about. And that was when he told
me how he had dealt with it all the years. And he described it as being in a
state of restlessness and always trying to keep moving so that he could stay
ahead of the darkness and not be swallowed by it. And that was really when I
felt like I was beginning to understand him.
And then he talked more. And he started talking about how important his faith
was, and he was talking about it in very specific language, about how the
resurrection gave him hope. And Iâd never heard him talk about the resurrection
before, and I said to him, I said, you know, have I missed something? Iâve
never really heard you talk this way. And he looked at me with surprise, and he
said, well, of course I havenât talked this way. I mean, this is personal. And
thatâs when I realized that the public Ted Kennedy was a lot different from the
private Ted Kennedy.
Now, in the book, there was another factor, which you can gloss over if youâre
not really reading it carefully and realizing just how significant it was, but
I think that his family really did ultimately give him his true compass, and
that was what bucked him up. He was about - he had over 30 nieces and nephews
and children, and when he was feeling at sea, he found comfort and balance in
their presence and in devoting himself to them. And I mean, thatâs the kind of
thing that is a little hard to believe because it sounds so altruistic, but I
really came to believe that this was the truth. And he talks in the book about
how he began to revive all of the family traditions that he had loved so much
as a child: the history trips that his mother had taken his family on to all of
the Massachusetts landmarks, like Paul Revereâs home and Walden Pond. And he
finds a comfort in that.
GROSS: Jonathan Karp will be back in the second half of the show. Karp is the
editor and publisher of Ted Kennedyâs new memoir, âTrue Compass,â which was
published today. Iâm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross.
We're talking about Ted Kennedy with Jonathan Karp, the editor and publisher of
Kennedy's memoir "True Compass," which was published today, less than three
weeks after Kennedy's death.
Karp worked closely with Kennedy on the book and read through the 50 years of
Kennedy's journals and notes that provided a major source for the book. When we
left off, Karp was talking about the assassination of JFK and how Bobby
descended into depression and Teddy tried to suppress his grief.
Did he talk with you about how he dealt with his brother Bobby's assassination
compared to the impact that his brother Jack's assassination had on him?
Mr. JONATHAN KARP (Editor and publisher of "True Compass"): He did and it seems
as if it was almost as if the reaction he had to Bobby's death was very similar
to the reaction that Bobby had to JFK's death. At that point Ted Kennedy was
completely lost. I think he says he was almost smothered by darkness and
despair. He couldnât concentrate. He went to the - he tried to go back to work
and one day he was driving to the Senate office and he was so overwhelmed with
emotion that he had to turn around and go back home.
And in this instance, what he did was he sailed. He sailed and he sailed and he
writes so movingly in the book, and I should actually probably read you that
part if you want because...
GROSS: Please. Yeah. Go ahead.
Mr. KARP: I surrendered myself to the sea and the wind and the sun and the
stars on these voyages. I let my mind drift when it would, from my sorrows to a
semblance of the momentous joy I have always felt at the way a sailboat moves
through the water. I love sailing in the day, but there's something special
about sailing at night. And on these nights in particular, my grieving was
subsumed into a sense oneness with the sky and the sea.
The darkness helped me to feel the movement of the boat and the movement of the
sea, and it helped displace the emptiness inside me with the awareness of
direction, and awareness that there's a beginning to the voyage and an end to
the voyage, and that this beginning and ending is part of the natural order of
That was practically verbatim from him. He believed that the sea was a metaphor
for life. That's why the title of the book is "True Compass."
GROSS: So there's that. There's that beautiful passage that you read about
being in the sea. But there's also his passage, you know, after Bobby's
assassination where he says: In the months and years after Bobby's death I
tried to stay ahead of the darkness. I drove my car at high speeds. I drove
myself in the Senate. I drove my staff. I sometimes drove my capacity for
liquor to the limit.
Did he talk with you about that side of him too, the side that was being driven
in both productive and unproductive ways, in productive and self destructive
Mr. KARP: We did talk about it but it was not a somber a conversation as you
mightâve thought it would be. It was something that I had a little bit of
trepidation about bringing up and I approached it in terms of his appetite for
life and his love of life, because this was a joyful man. He loved to laugh; he
loved to tell stories and there's no denying that he loved wine, women and
song. And we talked about that in that context. And he really felt that he had
it under control most of the time and that when he didnât it was because of
this desire to fill a void or to avoid the darkness. And, so we talked about it
in that context.
He thought a lot of what had been written about him was greatly exaggerated.
Some of it to the extent that he didnât understand how anybody could possibly
believe it. And I kind of came to believe that a lot that's been written about
his personal life is sort of judgmental and I donât think you get to be one of
the great senators in American history and put together the kind of legislative
record that he put together unless youâre a very disciplined person. And I
donât understand quite why people have gotten so fixated on aspects of his
GROSS: He's a Kennedy. People are fixated on aspects of every Kennedy's private
life. As he points out, the Kennedy family kind of had a double life in the
tabloids and he refused to ever respond to anything that was said in the
tabloids because it was a way of dignifying it and of continuing the
conversation instead of ignoring and stopping it.
Mr. KARP: Right. And actually, I talked to him a lot about being a Kennedy
because I was fascinated by that. I mean what is it like to literally be born
into the limelight? We actually reproduced in the book the newspaper stories
about his birth. These were not birth announcements. These were full stories
and I really pursued that angle with him because I thought it would explain to
readers what that must feel like to always be in the glare. And I think that's
actually one of the reasons that he liked to sail so much because it was a
place where he could be by himself and where he could reflect and he
acknowledged that that was the case.
But beyond that, he told us a story that I thought was the perfect metaphor for
what it meant to be a Kennedy. And it, again, was I think an indication of just
how subtle he was. It was a story that took place when he was about 10 years
old at a birthday party for him. And during his birthday party he overheard
another boy talking about what a terrible party it was and how dull it was and
how he wanted to go home.
And Teddy's father saw Teddy eavesdropping. And he pulls Teddy aside and he
says, son, let me give you some advice. Donât worry about what people say about
you. Donât think about what people will say about you. You'll be a lot happier
in the end. And according to Ted Kennedy, he really did take that advice to
heart his whole life and I donât think he spent a lot of time worrying about
what the tabloids were writing about him. I find that very hard to believe, but
I saw no indication of it in any of the conversations. As I say, there were no
recriminations, no bitterness, no anger. Really. I'm not exaggerating.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Karp. He's the publisher
of the book company Twelve. He published and edited Ted Kennedy's new memoir
Jonathan, let's take another break here and then we'll talk some more about
your process of working with Ted Kennedy on his autobiography.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Karp and he's the publisher of the publishing
company Twelve, which is the publisher of Kennedy's new memoir "True Compass."
Jonathan Karp is also the editor of the book and worked with Kennedy very
closely on it.
Now you were talking about how Kennedy was kind of brought up to basically shut
out what other people said about him - since he grew up in the limelight, his
father was in the limelight. That's what he was taught.
Let's talk a little bit about Chappaquiddick. Kennedy told you early on in the
process of doing this book that he was willing to talk about it and itâs a
subject he was always unwilling to talk about before. What was the process of
figuring out, with him, what to say, how to say it, what tone to use?
Mr. KARP: Well, he knew that he wanted to share his perspective. He didnât
believe there were really any new facts about Chappaquiddick. But what he
hadnât really shared in the past were his feelings, his reflectiveness about it
and the way in which he was deeply haunted by it and how he sought to atone for
it, really to the end of his life. So that's how he framed the conversation
about Chappaquiddick, and it was meant to give readers a sense of what was
going on in his head.
GROSS: Let me just stop and read something here. He says: That night on
Chappaquiddick Island ended in a horrible tragedy that haunts me every day of
my life. I had suffered sudden and violent loss far too many times, but this
night was different. This night I was responsible. It was an accident, but I
Mr. KARP: Right. And the thing that surprised me in reading this account was,
well, there was a lot that surprised me about it. I mean I didnât know that he
didnât want to go to that party that night. That he went really out a sense of
obligation. He felt he owed it to the people who'd worked on Bobby's campaign
and he knew that it would make him sad to be in that environment. And he...
GROSS: This was not long after his brother's assassination, his brother Bobby's
Mr. KARP: That's right. And the reason he left the party when he did was
because he was sad and Mary Jo Kopechne wanted to leave as well, and it was the
easiest way to extricate himself from a sad moment really.
And I think people need to read it for themselves and people will come to their
own judgment, but for me, it was heartfelt. I didnât have to edit it really at
all because I read it, and I believed it, and it felt true to me.
GROSS: He said that his goal was to, you know, drive her to her hotel. That
there was nothing, he didnât know her socially before this party. There was no
romantic relationship between them. Did he say if he was drinking or not that
Mr. KARP: He said that he had two drinks. And...
GROSS: Was that a lot for him?
Mr. KARP: I didnât ask that question. He didnât believe that he was drunk or
anything. He'd had two drinks.
GROSS: I don't want to dwell on Chappaquiddick, but there were so many
questions that were raised about it. Like, that Kennedy was believed to be
driving in the opposite direction of the ferry, that it took him many hours to
report it to the police. So, did he not want to deal with those questions?
Mr. KARP: I didn't really want to deal with those questions.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Well, why not?
(Soundbite of cough)
Mr. KARP: The thing about Chappaquiddick, it was the first question that
everybody who I encountered had. Whenever I told them I was working on Ted
Kennedy's book, they said, is he going to deal with Chappaquiddick? And what I
began to realize is that Chappaquiddick was a metaphor for whether Ted Kennedy
could be candid about his life and his feelings, and that the facts of
Chappaquiddick weren't ultimately what people were so fixated on. It was
whether he could talk with a sense of emotional directness about it and I
wasn't looking to relive every last incident of that tragedy.
He, as he says in the book, it was at this point he has memories of memories.
It's very hard for him to even remember what happened on that terrible day. And
what was really important I think in his addressing Chappaquiddick was to
convey his perspective and his point of view. This is his account. And there
are a lot of things in the book that are simply his perspective and we'll have
to leave the final judgment to others.
I believed it and I think that the average reader would at least find it to be
a reasonable account of what occurred. But I can't really take it point-by-
point because I didnât really feel like that was my role as his editor. And I
also donât think that that was his desire as the author.
GROSS: To address it point-by-point?
Mr. KARP: Right. I think, I don't think it was necessary.
GROSS: Did he think it ruined his chances at the presidency? Did he think it
prevented him from speaking out on certain issues?
Mr. KARP: Absolutely not and I think this is one of the pieces of conventional
wisdom that I hope this book will explode. If you look at the account of his
campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1980, you'll realize that the Iran hostage
crisis had a lot more to do with him not winning that election than
Chappaquiddick or anything else.
It was the Rose Garden strategy. It was the country rallying around a
president. That's what he thought ultimately contributed to his defeat, that
and the fact that he was not ready to talk when he should've been ready to
talk. He wasn't, it just took him too long to find his grove as a candidate.
That's what he thinks caused his loss in that campaign.
GROSS: Ted Kennedy grew up in the shadow of his family, his father, wealthy
powerful person, his brothers, his older brothers so successful and powerful.
Do you think he ever felt like he got out of those shadows?
Mr. KARP: I do. I can even tell you the year.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What year was it?
Mr. KARP: We think it was 1994, if you can believe it, about 30, more than 30
years after he first won the seat. There's a wonderful scene in the book. In
1994 he had one of the toughest reelection campaigns of his career. He actually
had to I think take out a mortgage on his house to pay some of the campaign
bills. And it was against Mitt Romney of all people. And he had to really
struggle in this campaign.
He was dead even in the polls at one point. He couldnât understand why this was
happening. And he went out and it was, he really sort of got his grove back.
Now, at the end of the election he actually won comfortably and there was a
party and he began to thank everybody in the family and expressed his gratitude
for the family because after all, it was a family seat and his wife Vicki said,
no. That's not right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KARP: This is your seat. You won this. And he says in the book that maybe
he needed to hear those words.
GROSS: Yeah. And she says to him, if you lost the seat, youâd consider it your
loss. So, you won it and itâs not your familyâs victory, itâs yours.
Mr. KARP: Yeah. And I really thought that that was â I thought that - I love
that chapter of the book because I just think it shows such â such grit and,
you know, he never â he never really gave up or â and he also never changed. I
mean, there was some pressure to moderate some of his views on welfare and he
stuck to what he believed.
GROSS: Why was health insurance such an important issue for him?
Mr. KARP: When his son, Teddy, was in the hospital, he saw these other families
dealing with cancer. And all of the kids were being treated with an
experimental drug from a grant by the NIH, National Institutes of Health. And
the grant ended. And he saw these families that couldnât afford to continue the
treatment. He saw them mortgaging their homes or selling their homes or risking
losing their jobs by being in the hospital so much. And he realized that
something had to be done about this. He actually began to bring his Senate
colleagues to hospitals in rural areas and the inner cities. He says in the
book that he wanted to take them out of their comfort zones, the way heâd been
taken out of his. And I think that that was, for him, a radicalizing moment.
And if you want to understand one of the things that motivated Ted Kennedy, you
have to read the Gospel of Matthew. He says that it was the most significant
passage in all the scripture that he read because the idea of caring for the
least of those among us is the true path to salvation. And he actually writes
in the book in language that again surprised me from such a secular figure,
that only those who heed the Gospel of Matthew will find themselves in paradise
GROSS: And he says, you know, Matthew, the social gospel of helping others,
calls for us to care for the least of those among us and feed the hungry,
clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the strange, visit the
He writes in a book about how deeply Catholic he was. And there are a lot of
people in politics, you know, who are driven by their religious beliefs. And
thatâs what â thatâs what guides them and in some instances â many instances
right now, politically â that means opposing abortion, standing for what people
on the Christian right define as family values. Ted Kennedy never made, like,
Catholic religion a part of his public political life.
Mr. KARP: I know, isnât it fascinating? Again, I think this reveals the depth
of his character and you can see it unfolding in the book. His presidential
notes from 1960 were particularly illuminating on this and â and his
description of campaigning for Jack, through parts of the country that were
either hostile to Catholics or were concerned about it really sheds light on
his state of mind. He goes to one event and he talks about the Catholic issue
and a psychologist comes up and criticizes him for raising an issue. He says,
people donât need to hear about this. So, then at the next event, he doesnât
mention it. And somebody else comes up and says, how can you â how can you
ignore this? By ignoring it, youâre just giving people more of a reason to
focus on it.
So, nobody knew how to talk about being Catholic in 1960. His brother was the
equivalent of Barack Obama in terms of being a path breaker. And they were also
very clear in that family, that there should be a separation between church and
state, and Kennedy really tried to walk that line. But he was deeply - he was
deeply religious. And it was all part of his reticent nature. At one point in
the book, he puts it very well. He says, maybe itâs a Catholic thing, maybe
itâs a New England thing, maybe itâs an Irish thing. But he just didnât talk
about a lot publicly.
GROSS: I just want to read what I consider to be one of the really special
sentences in the book and this has to do with â with Kennedyâs faith. He says,
all of my life, the teachings of my faith have provided solace and hope, as
have the wonders of nature, especially the sea - where religion and
spirituality meet the physical.
Mr. KARP: I love that passage.
GROSS: Yeah, I love that description of the sea, religion and spirituality
meeting the physical.
Mr. KARP: Those were his words. He was, whatever â whenever it was time for him
to talk about the sea or his family, the guy was lyrical beyond belief. And,
you know, he was very comfortable with that.
GROSS: So, let me ask you, how did you find out that Senator Kennedy had died?
Mr. KARP: I got an email. I got an email. And, you know, I mean itâs â I was
hoping he would live to see the book. And I mean, the only â the only thing I
can say is that he certainly lived to hear a lot of people say beautiful things
about him. I - you know, I wish heâd been able to see the reviews, but he did
live a really good life and he lived a lot longer than a lot of doctors thought
GROSS: Well, Jonathan Karp, thanks you so much for talking with us.
Mr. KARP: Oh, my pleasure, thank you Terry.
GROSS: Jonathan Karp edited and published the late Senator Ted Kennedyâs
memoir, âTrue Compass.â It was published today. Coming up, John Powers reviews
a book and a movie that raise questions about how new media are affecting our
notions of privacy. This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
A Brave New (Non-Private) World
TERRY GROSS, host:
As all of us try to figure out our place in the changing age of new media, our
critic at large, John Powers, considers how two new works, a documentary and a
novel, grapple with what is public and what is private.
JOHN POWERS: Near the end of 1910, London had its first big exhibition of post-
impressionist art. Viewers were startled, even shaken by the paintings by
Cezanne and Van Gogh, which threatened and sometimes shattered their sense of
the worldâs solidity. The show prompted Virginia Woolf to make her famous claim
that human character changed on or about December, 1910. After Cezanne, not to
mention Freud and Einstein, people in the West never saw themselves in the same
way. Woolfâs words came back to me again recently, when I put aside a very
entertaining Brazilian novel in order to catch a prize-winning American
documentary â only to discover that they were both struggling with the same
vast, if elusive, subject.
Theyâre both concerned with another major change in human character, one
happening almost exactly a century after Woolfâs great turning point. Ondi
Timonerâs âWe Live in Publicâ is a breathless film about Josh Harris, an early
dot-com millionaire with aspirations to being an artist in the Warhol vein.
Harris is known for two projects. The first was a hugely ambitious 1999 be-in
called âQuietâ, in which dozens of people spent a month living in a communal
bunker where every piece of behavior â even going to the toilet â wasnât merely
caught on surveillance cameras but could be watched on TV by everybody living
there. The result of this totalitarian exercise was a collective freak out.
Harris himself was the one freaking out in his second project, called âWe Live
in Public.â He and his girlfriend, Tanya Corrin, lived in an apartment where
everything they did was broadcast over the Internet to viewers, who then
commented on what they saw, including the coupleâs inevitable breakup. Harrisâ
projects raise all sorts of fascinating issues about how digital technology is
redrawing the boundaries of the self. As its possibilities enter peopleâs
heads, they redefine what belongs to me, what is me, and what belongs to the
world. Here, Harris indulges in a bit of big picture speculation.
(Soundbite of documentary, âWe Live in Publicâ)
Mr. JOSH HARRIS: As time is going by, the world of âQuietâ and âWe Live In
Publicâ in the public is going to become more and more real. The virtual
version of that is where Google and Facebook are heading, turning the camerasâ¦
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. HARRIS: â¦on to themselves, the way they gauge their self-worth is how many
MySpace friends or how many YouTube views they have.
Unidentified Woman #1: Facebook currently has 10 billion photos uploaded to the
site and 30 million more are uploaded daily.
Unidentified Woman #2: Itâs just people shouting out, hey, notice me, notice
me. Iâm here, Iâm here.
Unidentified Woman #1: People donât look up any more. Theyâre all walking
around like this â clicking. Weâre slaves to these little digital boxes. And he
was saying, this is the way itâs going to be.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman #1: And he was right.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman #1: I mean he was right.
Mr. HARRIS: Google, Facebook and MySpace are training people to automate
POWERS: Harris would get no disagreement from the unnamed hero of âAnonymous
Celebrity,â a sardonic new novel by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao, a writer Iâve
admired ever since I lugged his novel âZeroâ around Brazil 20 years ago. While
that earlier book was about military dictatorship, this new one dissects a
subtler new form of present-day authoritarianism. Itâs our media culture that
divides the world into celebrities - whose every movement is thought worth
reporting - and the anonymous herd, who mean less than nothing. Zippily
translated by Nelson H. Viera, the novel tells the story of a little-known
actor who dreams of killing a superstar, so that he can take over the manâs
roles and, more important, take over his fame.
He prepares himself to be famous by studying how 24/7 media culture colonizes
our psyches, from the products we buy to the buzzwords everybody suddenly
starts using. This wannabe killer is training himself to be as perfect a
celebrity as Angelina Jolie, who he considers a genius at crafting her persona.
You see, for him, the self is not something private and interior. Itâs a
construction, whose worth only comes from public consumption. Now, like so many
people dealing with the emergence of huge cultural changes, both Timoner and
Brandao get hyperbolic and overheated. âWe Live in Publicâ prizes voyeuristic
pizzazz over analysis, while âAnonymous Celebrityâ is, at bottom, a series of
manically entertaining riffs.
Neither offers the historical or cultural perspective that might illuminate
shifting ideas of the self. That said, both Brandao and Timoner are onto
something real. Although itâs hard to nail down, information technology is
transforming our whole image of the self. Itâs also whittling away old notions
of privacy; from those surveillance cameras that now follow us everywhere, to
the unnerving algorithms that let Amazon predict our tastes, to the friends
Iâve had to yell at to keep them from quoting my indiscreet jokes on their
blogs. Like it or not, we all do live in public more than we ever dreamed we
would even 10 years ago. And the question is, do we embrace this new world or
do we run away screaming, even knowing that someone may post our screams on
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. He reviewed the film, âWe Live in
Publicâ and the novel, âAnonymous Celebrity.â You can download Podcasts of our
show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
Iâm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.