The most remarkable thing about Chappaquiddick is that Kennedy was 37 years old at the time. This was not some youthful shenanigans gone wrong. Everything about the story — the drinking, philandering, poor judgment and lies — were the man. It was entirely in character
TED KENNEDY said of his slain sibling Bobby in 1968: “My brother need not be idealised, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life,” More than four decadeslater, one wonders why the late senator’s admirers aren’t heeding such advice.
Was there any need for quite so much media coverage, admittedly during a slow news month? Did this senator — only the brother of a president — deserve quite such fawning tributes? And, above all, was it entirely necessary for the Taoiseach to tag along to the cortege?
Every reason, according to Niall O’Dowd, the editor of the Irish Voice: “With his passing, Ireland and Irish America has lost its most important advocate.” My old friend, Senator Eoghan Harris, was right to point out too that Teddy Kennedy’s views on Ireland evolved over the years, thanks to some skilled Irish diplomacy and the influence of John Hume.
From demanding immediate British withdrawal from the North in the 1970s, he ended up shunning Gerry Adams on St Patrick’s Day in 2005. Instead, he promoted the cause of the sisters of Robert McCartney, gunned down by the Provos in Magennis’s bar in Belfast, to pressurise the IRA over decommissioning.
But Edward Kennedy must be judged in the round. Can the fact that he gave Ireland some assistance at critical points obscure the other, less savoury aspects of his character and record?
Are we not in danger of behaving like the neighbours of a serial killer who, after his arrest, are interviewed by the local TV station, saying: “He was always very nice to us; said ‘good morning’ on his way to buy the milk. I can’t believe he’s been accused of this.”?
It’s a slightly unfair comparison. Kennedy was not a serial killer. But he was a rogue enabled by fabulous wealth and power and a famous last name. And if you were Mary Jo Kopechne and 28 years old and female and attractive, he was dangerous.
On the day of his death the news-ticker on BBC News 24 read “Senator was involved in car accident in 1969”. That was typical of much of the media coverage, underplaying the true horror of that night 40 years ago which would have — and should have — cost any other politician his political career.
The accident on Chappaquiddick island probably cost Kennedy any chance of the presidency. It certainly cost Mary Jo her life. His actions that followed would have landed a man without political connections in prison.
On July 18 that year, Kennedy and five other men — most of them married — met six young single women who had worked on Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. After an evening of drinking rum, Kennedy and Mary Jo went for a drive. Kennedy testified that he was taking her to a ferry but it had already stopped running. They were, in fact, heading towards the beach.
Drunk, Kennedy lost control of the car on a bridge and it plunged into the water. He got out alive; Mary Jo did not. In Kennedy’s story, he dived down several times to try and rescue her, before walking back to the cottage where his friends were staying. To do so, he passed several houses where he could have raised the alarm — but he didn’t.
Kennedy claimed he and two of the men returned to the bridge to try and rescue Mary Jo without success. He told them not to tell the other women for fear they would try to rescue Mary Jo — at great peril to themselves — and assured them he would report the incident to authorities. Then Kennedy swam across the sound to a local inn where he spent the night and the following morning engaging in small talk about sailing.
When the two men who had been with him turned up at around 7.30 next morning, they asked him who he had called about the accident, only to receive the astounding reply: no one.
“I just couldn’t gain the strength within me, the moral strength, to call Mrs Kopechne at two in the morning and tell her that her daughter was dead,” he told the inquest. But he hadn’t called the police, either, and didn’t do so until 9am.
Not reporting a fatal traffic accident is a crime in most places. But the state of Massachusetts, citing Kennedy’s excessive speed on the bridge, merely suspended their senator’s driving licence for six months. That was it.
We are all flawed and most of us are weak, and in hellish moments, at a split-second’s notice, confronting the choice that will define us ever after, many of us will fail the test. Perhaps Mary Jo could have been saved; perhaps she would have died anyway. What is true is that Edward Kennedy made her death a certainty. His behaviour was, as he put it himself, “irrational and indefensible and inexcusable and inexplicable”.
The most remarkable thing about Chappaquiddick is that Kennedy was 37 years old at the time. This was not some youthful shenanigans gone wrong. Everything about the story — the drinking, philandering, poor judgment and lies — were the man. It was entirely in character.
Twenty years before, he had been thrown out of Harvard for cheating. Twenty years later, he woke his son and nephew to carouse the Palm Beach bars on Good Friday — leading to accusations of a rape occurring within his earshot. Most sickening of all, ‘the Lion of the Senate’ would ask people: “Have you heard any new jokes about Chappaquiddick?”
This was the same man who wrote to Pope Benedict shortly before he died in a letter read out at his funeral: “I have always tried to be a faithful Catholic, Your Holiness, and though I have fallen short through human failings, I have never failed to believe and respect the fundamental teachings.”
And the Kennedy acolytes wonder why His Holiness only gave a pro-forma reply.
COUNSEL for the defence would argue that all the man’s flaws were more than made up for by his political record. His name or imprint is to be found on an impressive array of legislative monuments, including the Civil Rights Act which outlawed racial segregation; giving the vote to 18-year-olds; important laws extending health insurance to children and manual workers; airline deregulation; and large allocations for Aids research and the disabled.
But what are the true believers really saying? That you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs? How many changed lives justify leaving a human being struggling for breath for up to five hours pressed up against the window in a small, shrinking air pocket in Teddy’s black Oldsmobile?
The youngest of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s nine children died 14 days after his sister Eunice. She was arguably the most consequential Kennedy, at least as measured by the selfless enlargement of happiness. She lived a luminous life, developing the Special Olympics and fighting discrimination against the mentally disabled. But Eunice Kennedy’s passing didn’t generate a tenth of the hoopla of Teddy’s.
While offering condolences to the Kennedy family at this sad moment, and noting the help he gave to Ireland down the years, it is important to note that Ted’s life was neither as simple nor as heroic as has been portrayed.
And that’s putting it mildly.