I readily admit to having had my share of teary-eyed moments over the past weekend, as I watched the many tributes that were bestowed on the late Ted Kennedy. He was, over the course of his long career in the Senate, all the things those who spoke of him said he was: a champion of liberal causes, a tireless fighter for the disadvantaged, a lion in the legislative body that was his professional home for nearly half a century, a loving family man, a warm friend to his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, the last icon from a storied family in American history, a true patriot in the deepest sense of the word.
He was all of those things, which is part of the reason I joined with most other Americans in mourning his death, expected though it was, from the terminal brain cancer that he had fought for 15 months.
But Ted Kennedy’s life story, for me at least, goes deeper and is, therefore, more poignant and more meaningful. For his story is not of a saint who died all too young, but rather of a real human being who had sinned greatly in his youth and had redeemed his life (and, if you will, his soul) in his later years.
Chappaquiddick was not Kennedy’s finest hour – far from it. For those who may not know the details, here’s a brief summary of the known facts and the reasonable inferences therefrom.
On the night of July 18, 1969, Kennedy was a 37-year old, twice-elected Senator from Massachusetts who only a little over a year earlier had seen his second older brother, Bobby, assassinated. He was at that point the patriarch of the family, the sole surviving brother of the original four (Joe, Jr., killed in WW II, John assassinated while president in 1963, and Bobby, then a candidate for president, in June of ‘68).
He was also married to his first wife and was already the father of the three children she gave birth to by him. The youngest of those three, Patrick, was just two years old at the time. The marriage had been rocky, largely, according to reliable press reports at the time, due to Ted’s womanizing and excessive drinking.
On that night, Kennedy had attended a party for former female workers on Bobby’s campaign. The party was held in honor of the “Boiler Room Girls,” as the press reported, on a small island, Chappaquiddick, off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, a long-time Kennedy family hangout. One of those “girls” was a 28-year old single woman named Mary Jo Kopechne, whose photos showed her to be not at all unattractive, for what that fact is worth.
For some reason, here reasonable assumptions can be made, she left the party with the young Senator. He was driving. At a point known as Dike Bridge, their car plunged into the Poucha Pond Inlet, where it quickly submerged. Kennedy managed to extricate himself from the car and to swim to shore. Kopechne remained in the car. Her drowned body was later recovered by the authorities.
How much later is the other sad and sordid part of the story, because the Senator did not report the “accident” until some nine hours had elapsed. A week later he pled guilty to “leaving the scene of an accident” and was given a two-month suspended sentence. A subsequent grand jury refused to indict him on more serious charges (including a manslaughter charge that the evidence most likely would have supported).
The incident must have haunted Kennedy for the rest of his life. How could it not? To be even remotely responsible for the death of another human being is a burden no one can ignore, and to be a proximate cause of such a death, especially under the tawdry circumstances that most probably existed on that July night, would be the kind of weighty and discomforting memory that would be life-changing for almost any member of our species.
For Kennedy, it may have been a defining incident, but how it defined him is another matter. He certainly did not appear to change his philandering ways in the succeeding years, even as he matured and developed a keen sense of his responsibilities as a Senator and leader of his political party.
In fact, fully twenty-two years after Chappaquiddick, now long divorced, Kennedy was at least remotely involved in an incident in which his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, was charged with rape.
Smith was ultimately acquitted of the charges, but the background story did not put the then 59-year old Senator in a favorable light. One report had him walking in on his son Patrick and Smith while they were “engaged” with their female companions for the night. He was reported to have been wearing nothing more than a “bedshirt” at the time. (You take it from there.)
By all accounts, Kennedy’s personal life did turn around when he met and married Victoria Anne Reggie, now his widow. With her, he apparently reformed himself, becoming the saintly, silver-haired patriarch whose death last week served to inaugurate a celebration of his life.
I have absolutely no quarrel with the celebration. History will record that Kennedy was a great American, and it will be right to do so. In devoting his professional career to the underprivileged and in fighting incessantly for equal rights for all Americans, he was a hero to many who share those views.
But there is more to a man than those things that can be noted in the public record. There is, in fact, a real life behind that record. Ted Kennedy’s real life was seriously flawed and desperately in need of redemption.
His great fortune was to live long enough to form a deeper kind of relationship with his second wife that matched his commitment to the causes he had always espoused. And by joining the two, he may well have found the redemption that allowed him to move from this earthly existence in a state of peace.
I hope, for him, it was so.