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A number of you have told me that you don’t look forward to reading the column on your computer screen. That’s not necessary if you have a printer. Print out the column and take it with you to the breakfast table or wherever else you choose to read printed material. (You can also call up past columns in case you missed them.)
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First, a reminder:
Attractive, hardbound copies of “Life With Marian”—a book which a good many readers have said they would be interested in owning—are still available for purchase (for $22.50) at The Bookworm in Countryside Village. If more convenient, you can now also send a check payable to Harold W. Andersen for $26.66 (includes tax and postage) and mail to me at P.O. Box 27347, Omaha, NE, 68127. A copy will be sent by return mail.
September 3, 2009
Today’s column is based on the assumption that my readers—or at least a majority of you—would be interested in a broader perspective than that which dominated the flood of news media coverage which followed the death of Senator Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy eight days ago.
Herewith one journalist’s effort to present some of the other side of the Kennedy story:
It might be said that during his lifetime, Ted Kennedy had four significant second chances. (A good many less-favored mortals don’t get a single second chance to right their lives following serious adversity. But, remember we’re talking about a Kennedy here, a member of the closest thing to a royal family which a mixture of relentless ambition, Irish charm and favorable media attention can produce in a democracy.)
The first of these significant second chances came when Harvard University readmitted Ted Kennedy as a student after he had been expelled for cheating as a sophomore. He subsequently graduated from Harvard and the University of Virginia Law School.
The second second chance could be said to be the fact that the voters of Massachusetts reelected him after his shameful conduct in connection with the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. (It might also be said that a second chance was given to him by the authorities who charged him only with a misdemeanor, leaving the scene of an accident, when the possibility of a manslaughter charge existed. More about Kennedy’s sorry performance in connection with Mary Jo Kopechne’s death later in today’s column.)
Massachusetts forgave his shameful conduct and continued to reelect him.
The third significant second chance followed Kennedy’s effort to deny fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter a second term in the White House. The Washington Post said that his “brief, inept campaign managed mainly to wound Carter.”
The low point of Kennedy’s campaign to replace Carter as the Democratic nominee in 1980, it is generally agreed, was a one-hour interview with CBS journalist Roger Mudd in November, 1979. Columnist Mark Schields commented that Kennedy’s muddled, stammering response to Mudd’s questions made Yogi Berra sound like a statesman.
Again, the voters of Massachusetts gave Kennedy another chance and continued to reelect him to the Senate after he had helped contribute to fellow Democrat Carter’s defeat.
Kennedy’s fourth and final significant second chance resulted from his marriage to Victoria Reggie at age 60.
A variety of news accounts credited Reggie, whom he married in 1992, with Kennedy’s moral and political redemption during the last 17 of his 77 years.
A New York Times story said that when Kennedy and Reggie met in 1991, it was “the worst year of Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s life since Chappaquiddick, 22 years earlier.
“With scandal unfolding that spring in Palm Beach, Fla., involving his nephew, the senator was humiliated by tabloid photos that showed him in a nightshirt after their boys’ night out, an aging, dissolute playboy.”
In 1991, the Times story continued, Kennedy was engaged in a difficult struggle over a major civil rights bill and later that year, with accusations of sexual harassment dominating the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, “there was the televised spectacle of Ted Kennedy, long a champion of women’s rights—sitting mute and powerless, silenced by the Palm Beach case.”
The Washington Post described Kennedy’s 1991 “low point” in these words: “…a particularly unflattering portrait of him as hard-drinking and juvenile was emerging at the rape trial of his nephew, William Kennedy Smith. After years of public carousing, Ted’s popularity in his own state was plummeting, and he was in danger of losing his seat to a Mormon businessman named Mitt Romney.”
This picture was changed dramatically as Kennedy took advantage of this most significant second chance and married the remarkable woman named Victoria Reggie.
A full account of the Chappaquiddick story took up 7-1/2 pages of a printout of the Wikipedia Internet encyclopedia. Following are highlights which were not included in the brief references in the Kennedy obituary stories which I read:
Kennedy, some friends and his driver were attending a small party on Chappaquiddick Island—a reunion for a group of six women who had worked in Kennedy’s brother Robert’s 1968 presidential campaign. Kennedy asked his driver for the keys to his Oldsmobile and left at approximately 11:15 p.m., Mary Jo Kopechne accompanying him, leaving her purse and hotel key at the party.
Kennedy turned down a dirt road leading to a bridge (Kennedy later said he had made a wrong turn) and the car went off the bridge into a shallow tidal pond. The car overturned. A diver later testified that in his expert opinion, Kopechne could have survived for up to two hours in a pocket of air trapped in the overturned vehicle and could have been rescued if help such as his had been summoned promptly.
But Kennedy, who said he dove repeatedly in efforts to free Kopechne from the overturned vehicle, swam across a narrow bay and checked into his hotel room where he was staying in Edgartown during his participation in a sailing regatta.
The hotel records showed that Kennedy complained at 2:55 a.m. that he had been awakened by a noisy party. By 7:30 a.m. the next morning, he was talking “casually” to the winner of the previous day’s sailing race. The overturned car was reported to authorities around 8:20 a.m. by two fishermen. At 10:00 a.m., Kennedy finally entered the police station in Edgartown and dictated a statement, which was given to the police.
At an inquest into Kopechne’s death, Judge James A. Boyle concluded that Kennedy’s turn onto the dirt road had been intentional, a speed of 20 mph as Kennedy testified to was at least negligent and possibly reckless, and “there is probable cause to believe that Edward M. Kennedy operated his motor vehicle negligently…and that such operation appears to have contributed to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.”
The district attorney chose not to charge Kennedy with manslaughter, despite Judge Boyle’s conclusions.
Instead of manslaughter, Kennedy was charged with leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. He was sentenced to two months in jail, the statutory minimum for the offense, but the sentence was suspended. His driver’s license was suspended for a year.
Kennedy went on national television the evening after Kopechne became trapped and he swam away. He said his wife (his first, the mother of his three children) did not accompany him to the regatta because of health reasons. He also said that he was not under the influence of liquor and his conduct following the accident “made no sense to me at all.”
He went on to ask the people of Massachusetts to decide whether he should resign. Ironically, he concluded by quoting a passage from his brother John F. Kennedy’s book, “Profiles In Courage.”
Massachusetts voters gave him another chance.
In addition to the one-paragraph references to the Chappaquiddick/Mary Jo Kopechne story, scattered elsewhere in the flood of sympathetic coverage of Kennedy’s life and final illness were some examples of journalistic candor which helped balance the portrayal of President Barack Obama’s choice as “the greatest United States senator of our time.” (The Washington Post compared Kennedy favorably to legendary senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.)
Among those relatively few comments which put Ted Kennedy’s troubled and controversial public and private lives in more balanced perspective were these:
A Wall Street Journal story which described Kennedy as “one of the most polarizing political figures of his time.”
Well down in a generally favorable story dealing with Kennedy’s career, a reader could find reference to Kennedy as “one of the most divisive figures in American politics.”
A Wall Street Journal column spoke of “a viciously unfair, effective attack” on Judge Robert Bork when he was nominated for the Supreme Court in 1987. The same column included this language:
“It is one of the mysteries of American politics how the cool centrism of John Kennedy became the passionate liberalism that is taken now as the Kennedy family legacy.”
I thought that conclusions reached by two publications with widely different political philosophies—The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times—captured in relatively few words the essence of Ted Kennedy, the “liberal lion”, and his success—or lack of it—in that role.
A Journal column concluded with the comment that Ted Kennedy’s “dream of an ever more expansive federal government seems not to have inspired as many Americans as he hoped.” But “the man who served longer in a U. S. Senate than all but two others is now an indelible part of our political history.”
And the concluding paragraph of a generally favorable article in The Times read like this:
“But if the art of government did not redeem Mr. Kennedy, it radiated him and the liberalism he personified. At a time when government itself had fallen to disrepute, Mr. Kennedy applied himself diligently to its exact discipline and wrested whatever small victory he could from the machine he had learned to operate so well. Whether or not his compass was finally true, he endured as a battered, leaky vessel through which the legislative arts recovered some of their lost glory.”
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To finish on a lighter note, one of my favorite cartoons:
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