Kennedy's Chappaquiddick moments

Carl Cannon:

It was just a car accident, really, albeit one involving alcohol, excessive speed, and the late-night machinations of a married man partying with an unmarried woman. Although traffic fatalities happen all-too-frequently in this country, the reverberations of this one reached far beyond the families of the driver who escaped without injury and the passenger who perished. There's no way to know for sure, but the accident at Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island on July 18, 1969 probably cost Edward M. Kennedy the presidency. It certainly cost Mary Jo Kopechne her life.

The one-car mishap was Teddy Kennedy's fault, of course, no one disputes that. And his actions that followed – not summoning emergency personnel who might have saved her life, the cover-up of the facts, not even reporting the accident until the following morning – likely would have landed a man without political connections in prison. That thought has stuck in the craw of Kennedy critics and assorted conservatives for forty years. It was heartbreaking for her family and friends to experience the loss of a lovely, devout, and socially committed 28-year-old woman. For millions of Americans who never knew her, the tragic incident has fed a festering cultural grudge.

The idea that Edward M. Kennedy could be a viable national politician – let alone a much-admired and lionized political figure – has convinced millions of everyday citizens and succeeding generations of conservative activists that among the elites of academia, politics, and the media two standards of behavior exist: One for liberal Democrats and another for conservative Republicans. Along with sweeping changes in immigration law, soaring oratory, and strengthening the nation's social safety net, this reservoir of class resentment is also part of Kennedy's legacy.

Liberals in the media pretend not to see this. Or rather, they blame those who feel aggrieved. This very morning, my old friend James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly employed the usual euphemisms about Kennedy's behavior in his post – and then launched a preemptive strike against anyone who might view Teddy's life with gimlet eyes. "A flawed man, who started unimpressively in life -- the college problems, the silver-spoon boy senator, everything involved with Chappaquiddick -- but redeemed himself, in the eyes of all but the committed haters, with his bravery and perseverance and commitment to the long haul," Fallows wrote.

I like Jim Fallows, and stand in awe of Kennedy's effectiveness as a politician myself. But hold on a minute: The "college problems" were serial cheating. The "silver-spoon" stuff, I suppose refers to, among other things, the speeding and reckless driving that ominously foreshadowed Chappaquiddick. And that phrase "redeeming himself in the eyes of all but the committed haters," well, the problem with that is that to many people, redemption implies that a sinner has come clean.

This graphic of the island and the events on it make clear that Kennedy's story makes no sense. He should have been charged with reckless driving and vehicular homicide and he would have been if he were anyone else.

Cannon has much more in this piece that deserves to be read in full. Anyone who does so will not have a high regard for this deeply flawed man, who was wrong about most issues in politics and was terrible wrong on the night Cannon describes.


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