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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Senator Edward Kennedy's memoir, "True Compass," 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. Kennedy's collaborator on the book was Ron Powers. Kennedy also worked closely with the editor and publisher of "True Compass," my guest, Jonathan Karp. Karp is the publisher and editor-in-chief of TWELVE, which publishes twelve books a year. He's 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. Kennedy's 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. 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. And…

GROSS: That's almost exactly two years ago.

Mr. KARP: Exactly, and it's been the most extraordinary editorial experience of my life.

GROSS: Because?

Mr. 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. KARP: Well, you know, I actually don't 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 you'd see that. There were - 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 he'd 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. I've had many occasions to meditate on its intrusions, but I wasn't willing to accept the doctors' prognosis. He had seen, you know, his children survive the odds. He'd 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 don't. I think - 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 don't need to be treated with kid gloves, but I believe in hope. And he didn't 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 book.

There was a period after he received the news where we didn't 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 wouldn't have even known he was confronting this if I hadn't read about it in the newspaper. I mean, that was the amazing thing about it.

GROSS: You mean because he didn't talk about it?

Mr. KARP: He didn't complain about it. He - well, of course he talked about it, but he didn't 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 "South Pacific." He was living his life, and he actually didn't spend a single day in bed until the very last day of his life.

GROSS: Kennedy had been a pretty private person, I think it's 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 family's lives in this autobiography?

As a reader, you want to learn as much as possible, and you want people to be - 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, let's 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 he'd 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 hadn't told. I mean, for - one of the best examples is the story about his son Teddy's bout with cancer when he was 12, and it's an incredibly powerful story in the book. And there is a scene where Ted Kennedy is throwing a football with his son, and he's realizing that this may be the last time his son is able to run and catch a pass from him because he's 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, that's not a story that Ted Kennedy would ever…

GROSS: And then he returned to the hospital.

Mr. KARP: Right, and then he returned to the hospital. That's 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 didn't talk this way, I mean, literally part of the silent generation. And they didn't 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 don't 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: I'm going to be candid. I'm 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 - he had a great deal of emotional intelligence. He was also a tremendously subtle man. And it's 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, I've worked with a lot of authors, and usually, as you say, there is a lot of self-justification, and they're trying to settle scores, and there's a lot of ego you have to deal with. There was none of that with Ted Kennedy, none.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Karp. He's the publisher of the book company TWELVE, and he is the publisher and editor of the late Ted Kennedy's new autobiography, "True Compass."

Jonathan, let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more about the process of editing Ted Kennedy's book and what you learned about him in the process. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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, "True Compass."

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 preceded that.

There was a memo that he - well, I don't know if you'd 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 didn't 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 utterly fascinating.

The most eye-opening to me occurred in 1964, when he was in the hospital after he'd 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 autoworkers' strike and Johnson's 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 didn't 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. It's just there in the notes.

GROSS: So Johnson gives him this, like, revelation that maybe it could have been stopped. It's 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 - 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 didn't 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 he'd said in conversations to us, that I didn't 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 Kennedy's. 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 Kennedy's work.

GROSS: You know, you've 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 - but on the other hand, you know, he describes the grief after his brother Jack's 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 I'm 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 I'll never forget. We were at lunch, and we'd been talking for a while, and he'd been telling me really wonderful stories about his family and about his early political career, but we hadn't 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 - at one point, he kind of turned to me and he said: So, how do you think it's going? And I told him that. I said, I'm not sure I really understand how you're feeling about things, and I don't understand how you've lived with all of this loss. And he heard that, and he didn't 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 there's 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 I'd never heard him talk about the resurrection before, and I said to him, I said, you know, have I missed something? I've never really heard you talk this way. And he looked at me with surprise, and he said, well, of course I haven't talked this way. I mean, this is personal. And that's 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 you're 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, that's 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 Revere's 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 Kennedy's new memoir, "True Compass," which was published today. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm 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 couldn't 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 things.

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 ways?

Mr. KARP: We did talk about it but it was not a somber a conversation as you might've 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 didn't 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 didn't 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 don't 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 you're a very disciplined person. And I don't understand quite why people have gotten so fixated on aspects of his private life.

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. Don't worry about what people say about you. Don't 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 don't 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 "True Compass."

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 it's 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 didn't believe there were really any new facts about Chappaquiddick. But what he hadn't 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 was responsible.

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 didn't know that he didn't 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 assassination.

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 didn't 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 didn't know her socially before this party. There was no romantic relationship between them. Did he say if he was drinking or not that night?

Mr. KARP: He said that he had two drinks. And...

GROSS: Was that a lot for him?

Mr. KARP: I didn't ask that question. He didn't 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 didn't really feel like that was my role as his editor. And I also don't 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 couldn't 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, you'd consider it your loss. So, you won it and it's not your family's victory, it's yours.

Mr. KARP: Yeah. And I really thought that that was - I thought that - I love that chapter of the book because I just think it shows such - such grit and, you know, he never - he never really gave up or - 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 couldn't 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 he'd 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 with Christ.

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 imprisoned.

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 that's what - that's what guides them and in some instances - many instances right now, politically - 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, isn't 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 - 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 don't need to hear about this. So, then at the next event, he doesn't mention it. And somebody else comes up and says, how can you - how can you ignore this? By ignoring it, you're 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 it's a Catholic thing, maybe it's a New England thing, maybe it's an Irish thing. But he just didn't 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 - with Kennedy's 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 - 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 it's - I was hoping he would live to see the book. And I mean, the only - 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 he'd 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 he would.

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 Kennedy's memoir, "True Compass." 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.

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