Wednesday, July 18, 2018
July 18, 2018: KennedyStudying: Chappaquiddick
[On July 18th, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a car accident that left his female companion Mary Jo Kopechne dead. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that Chappaquiddick incident and four other Kennedy family histories, leading up to a weekend post on cultural representations of the family!]
On taking the long view, recognizing its limits, and trying for a balance.
Edward “Ted” Kennedy did a great deal of meaningful and good work in his nearly fifty years (1962-2009) as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. He and his staff wrote more than 300 bills that became law, and he was a vital co-sponsor or supporter of many of the late 20th century’s most significant laws, from the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (not his finest moment or most discerning judgment, to be sure, but education reform was a widely shared bipartisan objective at the time). To my mind that legislative career and legacy stand alone in the 20th century, and rival those of towering 19th century greats like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Charles Sumner, and Thaddeus Stevens. Whether or not Kennedy deserved to go to jail for his role in Mary Jo Kopechne’s death (and more on that in a moment), it’s difficult to argue that the Senate and America overall would not have suffered significantly if Kennedy were not part of them for the forty years between that incident and his 2009 death.
And yet. In this long-ago Talking Points Memo piece, I argued that Mark Wahlberg’s escape from virtually all punishment (either at the time or in his long and successful subsequent career) for his youthful hate crimes represented a clear form of white privilege in action. And I’m not sure there’s any other way to see Kennedy’s similar avoidance of virtually all criminal punishment for his self-confessed abandonment of the car in which Kopechne was drowning (“leaving the scene of a crash causing personal injury,” in legal terms) and subsequent lack of notification of the police for many crucial hours; Kennedy pled guilty and received only a two-month suspended jail sentence. Whether the incident permanently tarnished his reputation and political future is a separate question (and perhaps it did keep him from the presidency, although there’s no way to know that for sure and again in any case he served in the Senate for four more decades). But it’s not a question that can or should distract us from the fact that a young woman died as a result of Kennedy’s actions and negligence (to put it in the kindest terms), and he remained legally and largely unaffected for his remaining forty years of life.
So while no one moment can necessarily define a life, moments of criminal behavior that result in a person’s death almost always impact the perpetrator far more than did Kennedy’s. That individual moment doesn’t entirely negate the long view of Kennedy’s career and impact, but neither does the long view in any way negate the awfulness of that individual moment. There’s no reason why we have to come to a synthesis of those two sides, of course—they’re both just part of a long, messy life and story, and any simplifying synthesis would risk eliding the messiness. But I do believe there’s reason to try to aim for balance in how we remember and tell that story. In many ways, Chappaquiddick and Kopechne were frustratingly minimized in the latter decades of Kennedy’s life, and so better remembering them is certainly an important part of that striving for balance (the new film, on which more this weekend, certainly will add to that side). But at the same time, Kennedy’s subsequent four decades of public service (far different from, for example, Walhberg’s career as a rapper, actor, and restauranteur) contributed meaningfully to the lives of numerous Americans and to the society as a whole, and those contributions are part of the story too. The additive version of collective memory isn’t always as inspiring as what I tend to focus on in this space, but I’d say it remains a consistent goal.
Next KennedyStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Kennedy connections you’d highlight?