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In memoir, Kennedy talks of guilt, Kopechne

Also discusses assassinations, personal foibles

By Carl Hulse
New York Times / September 3, 2009

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NEW YORK - In a memoir being published this month, Senator Edward M. Kennedy called his behavior after the 1969 car accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne “inexcusable’’ and said the events may have shortened the life of his ailing father, Joseph P. Kennedy.

In that book, “True Compass,’’ Kennedy said he was dazed, afraid, and panicked in the minutes and hours after he drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island with Kopechne as his passenger.

He admitted that he had “made terrible decisions’’ but said that he had hardly known Kopechne, a young woman who had been an aide to his late brother Robert and that he had had no romantic relationship with her.

The account by Kennedy, who died on Aug. 25 at age 77, adds little to what is known about the accident and its aftermath but recounts how they weighed on him and his family. The book does not shy from the accident, or from some other less savory aspects of the senator’s life, including a notorious 1991 drinking episode in Palm Beach, Fla., or the years of heavy drinking and women-chasing that followed his 1982 divorce from his wife, Joan.

But it also offers rich detail on his relationships with his father, siblings, and children that round out a portrait of a man who lived the most public of lives and yet remained something of a mystery. Among other things, it says that in 1984 he decided against seeking the presidency after hearing the emotional objections of his children, who, it says, feared for his life.

A copy of the 532-page memoir, scheduled for sale Sept. 14, was obtained by The New York Times.

In it, Kennedy also said he had always accepted the finding of a presidential commission that a sole gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, was responsible for President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Robert F. Kennedy grieved so deeply over the killing of the president that family members feared for his emotional health, Kennedy wrote, saying that it “veered close to being a tragedy within a tragedy.’’

Kennedy’s book provides new details about life in America’s famous political family and covers the remarkable career that was celebrated in memorials last week before his burial near John and Robert Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery. It provides his personal account of being stricken by the brain cancer that took his life and his decision to battle the disease as aggressively as he could. And it deals openly and regretfully with “self-destructive drinking,’’ especially after Robert’s death.

The book, published by Twelve, a division of the Hachette book group, was originally scheduled to be published in 2010 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the election of President Kennedy but was moved up because of the senator’s illness. Much of the book, written with a collaborator, Ron Powers, was based on notes taken by Kennedy over 50 years as well as hours of recordings for an oral history project at the University of Virginia.

In raw and often intimate terms, Kennedy wrote of the despair he experienced after Robert’s assassination in 1968. It was at first impossible for him to return to the Senate. And even when he managed to, he could not focus on his work. He spent days on the ocean, taking long sails from the family compound in Hyannis Port.

“Sometimes I sailed for long distances,’’ he wrote. “Sometimes I sailed to Maine.’’

He described drinking to excess during that period and driving his first wife, Joan, “deeper into her anguish.’’ He drove himself and his staff hard. “I tried to stay ahead of the darkness,’’ he wrote.

The shooting of his brothers traumatized him in ways both existential and mundane, Kennedy noted. He would flinch at loud, sudden noises like the explosion of firecrackers or hit the deck whenever a car backfired.

He offered apologies for the darker moments of his life, but he raged against the portrait of him in some tabloids, magazines, and books. He described some of those accounts as “totally false, bizarre, and evil theories.’’

Of his indulgences, Kennedy wrote: “I have enjoyed the company of women. I have enjoyed a stiff drink or two or three, and I’ve relished the smooth taste of a good wine. At times, I’ve enjoyed these pleasures too much. I’ve heard the tales about my exploits as a hell-raiser - some accurate, some with a wisp of truth to them, and some so outrageous that I can’t imagine how anyone could really believe them.’’

Kennedy also offered his views on the scrutinizing of the private lives of public officials, something with which he clearly was quite familiar. Kennedy said he had no quarrel with such inquiries.

“But do I think it tells the whole story of character? No I truly do not,’’ he wrote. Men and women, he said, are more complicated 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.’’