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Holiday Book Bonanza ’09: Donald Ritchie

It has become a holiday tradition on the OUPblog to ask our favorite people about their favorite books.  This year we asked authors to participate (OUP authors and non-OUP authors).  For the next two weeks we will be posting their responses which reflect a wide variety of tastes and interests, in fiction, non-fiction and children’s books.  Check back daily for new books to add to your 2010 reading lists.  If that isn’t enough to keep you busy next year check out all the great books we have discovered during past holiday seasons: 2006, 2007, 2008 (US), and 2008 (UK).

Donald A. Ritchie, historian of the Senate, is the author of Doing Oral History, and of the forthcoming The U.S. Congress: A Very Short Introduction.  Ritchie has been Associate Historian of the United States Senate for more than three decades.

Having read more than my share of political autobiographies, I did not expect to enjoy Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass, as much as I did. This type of venture is often a collaboration with a professional writer, as was Kennedy’s with Ron Powers, but True Compass rises well above the usual “as told to” book. From the start, the text is in Kennedy’s voice, capturing his cadences, passions, and humor. The memoir succeeds because it draws on an oral history program that Kennedy launched five years earlier, when he commissioned the Miller Center at the University of Virginia to conduct interviews with himself, his family, and his staff. Kennedy’s thirty hours of interviews with the project’s team of interviewers, supplemented by further discussions with Powers, sustain the book’s vitality and his reminiscences offer candid glimpses into his personal and political life.

Ted Kennedy was at his best describing his childhood as “the kid in the family” with a dynamic but domineering father, a pious but distant mother, and three dashing and competitive older brothers (his sisters to a lesser degree). He affectionately recalled mornings on horseback, riding behind his father along the cranberry roads of Cape Cod, but also recited the cold frankness of his father’s lecturing him on the need for seriousness of purpose if he wanted paternal attention. Kennedy shared his memories of the unfortunate choices his family made for his schooling, the whirl of events around his father’s ambassadorship, the exhilaration of the 1960 presidential campaign, his personal stumbles, and the tragic endings that his brothers met.

The older that Kennedy grows, the memoir offers fewer revelations, but that is something characteristic of many oral histories, when narrators define their glory days more in terms of their youthful adventures than their mature accomplishments. Kennedy did offer abundant insights into the U.S. Senate, where he served for forty-seven years. These range from his coming to grips with such hidebound committee chairmen as Mississippi’s James Eastland, to his coping with a string of presidents who viewed him as a potential rival. Generous to most everyone he described, Kennedy could not hide his bitterness towards Jimmy Carter, whom he viewed as having wasted the Democratic majorities in Congress and frustrated efforts to enact liberal programs stalled during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Still, it was Kennedy’s loss of the presidential nomination to Carter in 1980 that finally freed him from a perpetual quest for the White House and enabled him to focus on becoming an outstanding senator, through his oratory, coalition building, committee work, parliamentary skills, and talented staff. The book puts into perspective a question so frequently asked over this past year: Who will be the next Ted Kennedy? When Kennedy first ran for the Senate, no one–including himself–would have predicted that he would evolve into such a legislative craftsman. How he achieved that stature makes his memoir fascinating reading.

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