Teddy & Me
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.
“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 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.”
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 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.
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.
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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.