Remembering Ted Kennedy Fairly

Today, on the Sunday before the new year, the New York Times Magazine has its annual issue of brief profiles of famous, important, and not-so-famous-but-still-important people who breathed their last in the past twelve months. It is always a fascinating collection; for me, the exercise is a slap in the face, focusing my wandering attention upon how many remarkable lives and achievements have escaped my awareness and proper appreciation—and this is only a small, random collection. The last of the profiles, however, was about a life I knew a lot about: Ted Kennedy. In my view, the piece fails an ethical imperative. It doesn’t mention Mary-Jo Kopechne.

I have no objection to lionizing Senator Kennedy. He devoted his life to public service, worked hard, displayed integrity and courage in his professional conduct, and by any measure was one of the most important U.S. Senators in the nation’s history. By all accounts, he was also a very nice man. I have no objection, as long as one rule is followed by the late Senator’s admirers: don’t forget Mary-Jo, the 29-year-old campaign worker who drowned in the waters of Chappaquiddick Island. Ted Kennedy only had the opportunity to accomplish what he did because wealth, family influence and the near deification of his two martyred brothers in Massachusetts combined to allow him to escape the rightful consequences of his irresponsible and terrible actions on July 18, 1969. On that date, in the midst of a late night escapade typical of Kennedy men, he drunkenly drove off a Rhode Island bridge, left a young woman in his car to drown, and then, instead of reporting the accident, conferred with lawyers and Kennedy family “fixers” to concoct a cover story that might salvage his political career.

I watched his televised explanation from my parents’ home in Arlington, Mass., and like almost everyone else, I didn’t believe it. It didn’t matter, not in Massachusetts, not so soon after Bobby Kennedy’s death. The state had to have a Kennedy, so despite that fact that anyone else in Ted’s fix would have been facing a possible manslaughter conviction and even jail time, Kennedy was allowed to continue his political career, the ultimate triumph of privilege over justice, bestowed on a man who would later thunder from podiums that America had to stop kowtowing to wealth and power.

There have always been those, including my late father, who refused to forgive Kennedy for what happened to Mary Jo Kopechne, no matter what he did. Wall Street Journal blogger James Taranto never posted an item about Kennedy that didn’t include the parenthetical “Mary Jo Kopechne could not be reached for comment.” I think that was wrong and gratuitously nasty. Still, Kennedy’s life was an ethical outrage that just happened to work out well for the nation, a life defined by moral luck. A victim’s life was snuffed out before she could achieve any of her dreams; the wrongdoer averted accountability and consequences, and became an American icon. It is a small thing, but essential nonetheless: no tribute, profile, accolade, sketch, or anything beyond an anecdote to, of or about Ted Kennedy’s life should fail to include a reference to the innocent life he helped end by his misconduct, so that just as his fame survives his wrongdoing, her memory survives the result of it.

It’s only fair.

3 thoughts on “Remembering Ted Kennedy Fairly

  1. Gabe, my point is that special rules are in order with Edward K. I think, because of the unique arc of his career—a man who did the most with a second chance he didn’t deserve—he, his admirers, posterity and history have an obligation to balance the injustice to Kennedy’s victim and to make sure he never is separated from her shadow by mentioning her is every profile, tribute, or assessment, objective or otherwise. (Tribute was sloppy—I expanded it above. Hat tip.) She isn’t a footnote. I actually chose the Times piece because it defies categorization…it is more of a recrudescence; it doesn’t really contain much about Kennedy’s life at all. Never mind: the least he owed to Mary Jo was to carry her name everywhere.

  2. I remember so clearly the argument in my family when my brother-in-law said that the Kennedys arrived at the Kopechnes and elsewhere in New England with “bags of money” to stop any prosecution of Teddy for his actions.

    I have always been conflicted about this. If it were my daughter, would “bags of money” stop me from seeking justice? Would the Kennedy name strike such fear (his father being a mobster and all that) that I would accept the money and say no more?

    Joseph P.Kennedy Sr. was recalled from the Court of St. James for being a Hitler sympathizer. His son, Joe Kennedy, Jr., died in an almost suidical attempt to destroy the Nazi bomb emplantments outside of England. Some believe it was purposeful. Joe Kennedy Sr. had his own daughter lobot0mized and institutionalized because she didn’t “fit the mold” of the Kennedy family. Jack Kennedy was a real WWII hero, but his “Profiles in Courage” book was almost completely written (proven) by a Georgetown University history professor. It is well known that the Chicago mob (and Mayor Daley) had a big part in Jack taking Illinois in 1960. Both Jack and Bobby were notorious philanderers. I could go on.

    So from this well known family history we’re supposed to believe the official Mary Jo Kopechne story? Please.

    My only question at this point is how the Kopechne family can live with themselves. The Kennedys can, because they’re so used to it.

    Whether any bio or obit of Ted should mention it is up for grabs: open that door and one has the terrible job of just where to stop with this family.

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