Teddy & Me


Lauren Baratz-Logsted

As with my previous BiblioBuffet piece “Unabashedly for Clinton,” if you either hate the Kennedys or have a closed mind, please move along, nothing to see here. Also as with the previous piece, rather than doing a conventional review of the book in question—in the earlier instance, Taylor Branch’s The Clinton Tapes; in this one, Edward M. Kennedy’s own True Compass. I’ll be pulling specific quotes that particularly struck me. The late senator from Massachusetts was first elected to the Senate four months and one day after my birth and, as a result of that coincidence in timing, has been more dominant in my life than any other politician. So if, like me, you are primarily a Teddy admirer or at least have an open mind, feel free to proceed. Everyone else, you have been warned. 

I’m a realist, and I have heard bad news in my life. I don’t expect or need to be treated with kid gloves. But I do believe in hope. And I believe that approaching adversity with a positive attitude at least gives you a chance for success. Approaching it with a defeatist attitude predestines the outcome: defeat. (p. 5) Upon receiving the diagnosis of brain cancer. That’s one of the things that really shine through in this book: the almost unrelieved optimism of the man. I’d like to bottle that attitude and carry it with me through the rest of my life. In truth, I try to be an optimistic person. It’s been my experience that oftentimes when others encounter someone as publicly upbeat as myself, both in personal nature and the majority of my writings, the inevitable conclusion is that I can’t possibly be very deep or that I don’t take things very seriously. I actually think deeply about many things and do take the world seriously but I also make a conscious decision every day about the person I want to be in the world. My motto is that one cannot choose the things that happen to one but one can certainly choose how to react.

“After you have done your best, then the hell with it.” (p. 49) Words of wisdom from Teddy’s father, Joseph Kennedy. One sentence with two noteworthy clauses: first you need to actually do your best and once you’ve achieved that then you need to learn how to let it go. For a novelist, the “do your best” part can be easy enough once inherent laziness has been conquered. It’s really the latter part, the ability to say “to hell with it,” that poses the larger problem. There’s always the temptation to want to sit on each reader’s shoulder and tell people what they think. But you can’t do that. If it’s important to realize you have the power to choose how to react to what happens to you, it is equally important to realize that you have no power over how others react to you or what you create. If you’re lucky, some people will love you and your work, some people will hate you and your work, and no one will ever feel tepid or indifferent.

I held Teddy [Jr.] in my arms and told him that I’d be there with him, that we’d face this problem together, that surgery would take care of the problem so he could be well, that we would have many happy days still ahead. (p. 308) I defy anyone who has ever had a child or loved a child to read the chapter called “The Hospital,” wherein a father learns his 12-year-old son has a potentially deadly cancer requiring an amputation, who then takes the boy home to throw the football around one last time before going back to the hospital where he has to be the one to deliver the news that his son needs to have a leg cut off, not to be moved. Later on the same day of the operation, after the surgery was a success, Teddy walked his niece Kathleen down the aisle at her wedding. There’s the Kennedy story right there in a single day. Tragedy. Joy. Life.

I don’t think there’s another seemingly privileged life I’m aware of that was so constantly beset by tragedy. You think you know the Kennedy story but seeing it all laid out in one book—four siblings lost before their time, two to the bullets of assassins; two children suffering through cancer; his own plane crash that left him with a long road to physical recovery; and finally, the diagnosis of brain cancer—it is quite a Job-like tapestry. And yet through it all, even though there were times when optimism faltered for a moment, there is still that strong and resilient person’s sense of “many happy days still ahead.” 

My father had a great rule of thumb: bet on what you think a man will do rather than what he says he’ll do and you’ll be right more often than not. I just wasn’t sure with Carter. (p. 358) This gives rise to two thoughts in me: one, I need to seriously think about how I bet on things; and two, Jimmy Carter emerges in this narrative as being one of the few people—with Nixon being the other most notable exception—that Teddy couldn’t find a way to get along with. Honestly, I don’t think I could get along with either one either. In terms of Nixon, Teddy cheerfully took his own name off a bill in order that Nixon might be persuaded to sign. In the case of Carter, he decided to run against him for office. I know I’d do the first and if I ever achieve my secret lifelong dream of being Mayor of Danbury, thereby giving me a political leg to stand on, I’d definitely take on the second.

I’d come, I told them, to discuss my beliefs about faith and country, tolerance and truth in America. I knew we had certain disagreements; but I hoped that tonight and in the years ahead, we would always respect the right of others to differ, and never lose sight of our own fallibility, that we would view ourselves with a sense of perspective and a sense of humor. (p. 397) Addressing students on the campus of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College. That’s what’s missing in political discourse today: any real sense of respect, any perspective on our own shortcomings. I try to remain upbeat but on bad days find myself becoming increasingly distressed about the state of affairs in Washington. It’s worth noting that after this speech, Falwell’s previously contentious attitude toward Teddy softened somewhat.

I decided long ago never to respond to tabloid gossip. Never. Once you respond to that kind of trash, you elevate it to something worth responding to. And anyway, once you begin refuting, you can never stop. Because then if you fail to deny even one such story, that might be taken as evidence that it is true. (pp. 421-2) So easy to resolve, so difficult to put into practice! I think maybe Teddy read a little Kipling in his time. As a writer, I have adopted as my motto, “Never explain, never complain,” for dealing with critics.

I believe that each of us as individuals must not only struggle to make a better world, but to make ourselves better, too, and in this life those endeavors are never finished. (p. 435) The idea of working to make ourselves better people, to make the world a better place—I’m not sure what I’ve done in terms of the latter lately. I spend a lot of time asking what my country can do for me, but asking what I can do for my country? Not so much. I do struggle all the time to make myself a better person in terms of my direct dealings with other people. Not sure how that’s working out, since I’m hardly the one to judge!

These were my people. They were working people. They were the people I had been representing for thirty-two years, and we still had work to do. (p. 446) While running for reelection in 1994. It’s hard for some to connect one of the most privileged men in the country, born into wealth, with the phrase “my people” when referring to working people. And yet is there anyone for whom the connection is more true? Never in the pocket of special interests, never on the take with big business and insurance companies, Teddy’s whole political service was a compass for helping those with less.

Every day of my life I try to be a better human being, a better father, a better son, a better husband. (p. 447) There’s that Kiplingesque ideal again: not to have more for oneself but to be better for other people. 

I should pause here for a moment and make clear my feelings about the right to scrutinize public officials. Do I think such inquiry is fair? Absolutely. But do I think it tells the whole story of character? No, I truly do not. Human beings are much more complex than that. Some people make mistakes and try to learn from them and do better. Our sins don’t define the whole picture of who we are. (p. 465) We’ll get back to this one later.

Chapter Twenty-five: Senator, 2000-2008 (p. 482) I quote the mere chapter title here for a reason. As noted earlier, two of the few people Teddy had trouble getting on with were Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. He even got along with George W. Bush on some levels, but I think it’s worth noting that while other chapters spanning an individual president’s service are titled with chapter headings that are obviously reflective of that—“The Reagan Years,” “The Clinton Years” etc.—the one spanning George W. Bush’s presidency is simply titled “Senator.”

I think of the withering away of collegiality and sense of collective mission as the corruption of the Senate. I don’t mean corruption in a legal sense; rather I mean corruption in the sense that things are broken. (p. 487) No lie. The question is: How did we get here, and how do we get out of this mess? There was this cartoon I used to see when I was a kid. This wolf and this sheepdog. They’d walk to a field together at dawn, lunch pails in hand, acknowledge each other with a one-word greeting—something along the lines of, “Joe;” “Scott”—and punch a time clock. Then the wolf would spend the day trying to steal the sheep while the sheepdog would spend the day outsmarting the wolf. At the end of the day, at dusk, after a day of fighting, they’d punch out and acknowledge, “Joe”; “Scott” like what had just happened had happened but also somehow as though it had not. It was like they did what they had to do during the day but when not on active duty, they were civil, friendly even. It’s impossible for me at this point to picture John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi having a collegial wolf/sheepdog moment away from the field of skirmish.

My faith, and the love of following its rituals, has always been my foundation and my inspiration. Those foundations have been shaken at times by tragedy and misfortune, but faith remains fixed in my heart, as it has since my childhood days. It is the most positive force in my life and the cause of my eternal optimism. I have fallen short in my life, but faith has always brought me home. (p. 505) I am not a conventionally religious person. I do not do good in the hope of gaining a place in heaven. I do not avoid evil in the hope of escaping hell. When I think about God, I think about the potential in all of us and that each choice we make brings us closer to a state of goodness or further away. It is not, for me, an external reward. The faith of those in public office has at times been like a comedy, the elected officials who wear their religion most loudly or proudly on their sleeves—or on their lapels, as it were—being the ones most likely to be at the center of whatever the next Scandal of the Week. Teddy’s life, by contrast, stands as an example of using one’s religion, not to exclude others or practice prejudice and discrimination, but rather as a vehicle for doing better and being better.

Keep sailing. Try this technique. Don’t give up . . . “We may not be the best, Teddy, but we can work harder than anyone,” I told him. “And that will make all the difference.” (p. 507) Talking to his grandson. 

I had originally intended at the end of this piece to return to some of the topics from the middle of True Compass. I’d thought to address some of the scandals of Teddy’s life and his shortcomings, offering my own take. But I’m no longer inclined to do that save to say that we none of us would want out entire lives to be judged by the single worst thing we have ever done. Kennedy says it best: Our sins don’t define the whole picture of who we are. (p. 465) With the exceptions of noted extremes like Hitler and Jesus, no one ever is either the worst they have done or the best. Rather, we are the sum total of all the moments of our lives. In the case of Teddy, despite flaws and human weakness and what he himself would call sins, the overwhelming number of his moments were spent in trying to make the world a better place. 

Keep sailing. Try this technique. Don’t give up. 

Win a free copy of Crazy Beautiful! We will be giving away a copy of her latest young adult novel, Crazy Beautiful, to this week’s lucky winner. To enter, send us an e-mail with your name. That’s it. For this drawing, all names received on or before Friday, April 2 will be entered, and the winner’s name will be drawn that evening. We will notify the winner over the weekend. Only one entry per person, please. (We apologize to our international readers, but due to high postage costs we can only mail books to U.S. addresses.) There is no obligation, and your name and address will not be saved by BiblioBuffet or used for any purpose other than mailing the books. 


Lauren Baratz-Logsted has sold twenty books to six publishers since 2003. Her published novels include The Thin Pink Line and Vertigo for adults; Crazy Beautiful for teens, Me, In Between for tweens; and the first four of The Sisters 8, a nine-book series for young readers, co-written with her novelist husband Greg Logsted and their nine-year-old daughter Jackie. In the year 2010 she'll have four more books published, including two more titles in The Sisters 8 series, The Education of Bet for teens and one more teen title. Lauren still lives in Danbury, CT, where she writes and reads pretty much all the time. You can read more about Lauren’s life and work (and contact her) at her personal website and the Sisters 8 site. Contact Lauren.



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