“Everyone can make a difference, and each of us should try.”
– Ted Kennedy
Raised in a very conservative, republican, Catholic home, I used to think Ted Kennedy was the anti-Christ. In the 70s when I was a young kid, my democrat-turned-Nixon-loving-mom told me about Chappquiddick to make sure I knew what a jerk Ted Kennedy was, and to let me know the bastard got away with murder.
Then, in the years after I left home, my mind expanded and I learned a little more about the big picture. I came to admire Kennedy’s work and even agree with him on virtually every public issue he was concerned with. He was such an involved and passionate politician; he appeared in many areas of the news and world that I was intrigued by.
Though I never met him, he sort of became part of my life, I suppose. When he was diagnosed with brain cancer, I sent him a card because I felt I’d just learned of a friend being sick.
A few months ago in the public library, I happened across the book “Black Water” by Joyce Carol Oates. It’s a fictionalized version of the events at Chappaquiddick, a “novella” that is Oates’s best guess about what happened that day and that night. It was sobering. And sickening. In real life, Kennedy said he could just never explain why he left the scene and didn’t call the cops till the next day.
Because he was drunk, obviously. Coming from a long distinguished line of alcoholics, I know what excuses are, and it’s easy for me to see when explanations no longer ring true. Because Kennedy was not publicly forthcoming about his intoxication, I assume he must have had to make peace with his sin in the confessional, or in the psychiatrist’s office. Still, I’ve always wondered how he could live with himself.
In the 70s and 80s it became clear—again, to those familiar with the telltale signs of alcoholism—that Kennedy did not just abuse alcohol, he was a full blown alcoholic. As Time Magazine stated in 1991, “Kennedy’s face sometimes looks flushed and mottled, with the classic alcoholic signs of burst capillaries, puffiness and gin-roses of the drunk.”
(Time also said, “The serious lawmaker in Ted Kennedy would turn now and then into a drunken, overage, frat-house boor, the statesman into a party animal, the romance of the Kennedys into a smelly, toxic mess. The family patriarch, the oldest surviving Kennedy male, would revert to fat, sloppy baby.” Yipes!)
Anyway, since he never, ever (as far as I know) spoke candidly about his drunkenness at Chappaquiddick, I feel unforgiving toward Kennedy about it.
Then, like a traitor to my own indignance, I look at his life. Born into a dynasty. Brother Joe dies in WWII. Brother John assassinated. Brother Robert assassinated. One brother left. He drank a lot to cope, and (I suppose) because he was genetically programmed to. He drunkenly drove off a bridge, killing someone else. And then I realize, Chappaquiddick could have happened to anybody. It happens to people every day.
My alma mater is St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Several years ago, but many years after I’d graduated, six St. Mary’s students just didn’t come home from the bars one night. After a search of several days, their vehicle—with their six bodies—was found completely submerged in the Mississippi River. A drunk driver had driven right his friends right into the river and killed everyone. It was an “everyday” drunk driving crime. Same as Ted Kennedy’s.
Mary Jo Kopeckne didn’t get another chance, but Ted Kennedy did. And he went on to do good things with his life. Great things. He became the greatest Kennedy of his generation. He picked up his brothers’ causes when they died, and championed them for 40 years. He made a difference with the second chance that he got.
Does that make his abhorrent behavior in 1969 any more forgivable? Or any less reprehensible? If you were God, would you understand? How about if you were only a human being?