On July 19, 1969, Edward M. Kennedy drove off the Dike Bridge connecting Edgartown, MA to Chappaquiddick Island; the car overturned and filled with water. Kennedy managed to free himself and swim to shore, while his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, a former aide to the slain Robert F. Kennedy, did not escape. She drowned, and perhaps suffered terribly as Kennedy ran and failed to call the police or an ambulance, or even to tell anyone who might have helped Kopechne, until the next day. Whether she might have been saved or not is an open question, and because of this Kopechne is forever seared in our collective historical memory as a victim of Kennedy’s recklessness, wealth and self-destructiveness. Her death resulted from a kind of privileged, masculine disdain for women that was so common that it was culturally invisible prior to the feminist activism of the 1970s. While the Senator claimed at the time that he tried to save Kopechne, those who know the tides in the area doubted that he could have dived “repeatedly” into the swift channel without drowning himself, although having seen what a strong swimmer can accomplish under adverse circumstances (lifeguards knifing into twenty-foot waves to save a drowning victim in the South Pacific), I wouldn’t argue that it is impossible. You can read Kennedy’s explanation to the people of Massachusetts, delivered July 25 1969 after he entered a plea of guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, here.
I begin my elegy to Senator Kennedy with this memory because it should not be forgotten. It happened, and it was a Terrible Thing. But I also begin there because it was the occasion of our first encounter. I was eleven when I watched his televised speech, and I had paid no attention to this Kennedy at all until the moment of Kopechne’s tragic death. I was already a political junkie, and for me, all politics had been framed by our great expectations that the Kennedy family would somehow save America from its worst self: segregation, Viet Nam, nuclear holocaust, race riots in Philadelphia and Newark, NJ. Since I was born in 1958, Jack was my first president. I remember being told that the President’s daughter Caroline and I were nearly the same age. When I saw her in Life magazine I thought how very lucky she was to have a pony of her own — and secretly, I wanted to be John-John, viewed already as the heir to the Kennedy political tradition. I also remember my mother seizing my hand in the Reading Terminal Market around noon on November 22, 1963. As I recently recalled in a talk given at a ceremony celebrating the opening of the William Manchester Papers at Zenith University, Mummy and I were
waiting in line at a butcher or a greengrocer’s stand, when all of a sudden the adults around me erupted in agitation. My visual memory is of lots of legs in nylon stockings beginning to churn, since I experienced most adults as only legs before I grew tall enough to see their faces without effort. My mother seized my hand tightly and began to run to the car. “What happened?” I asked. She said tightly, “We have to get home. Someone has shot the President.” Knowing as I do now what an anxious person my mother is, from a distance of 45 years I regard her capacity to get us home on that day as an act of great heroism.
On June 7, 1968, my friend Mar Bodine had stayed over for the night, and my mother came in to tell us that Bobby Kennedy, a presidential candidate, had also been shot and killed; a little more than two months earlier Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis. And then, a year later, as speculation (undoubtedly carefully nurtured by Kennedy operatives) that Teddy was contemplating a run for president himself in 1972 (one Kennedy falls, the next Kennedy steps up had been the rule since Joe Kennedy Junior had been killed in an overwhelmingly dangerous air mission over England in 1944), Teddy drove off the Dike Bridge. Perhaps it was because politics as we both knew them — me at 11, he at 37 — was soaked in blood, and there seemed no other way to evade his own inevitably violent death than to drive into the gnarly water surrounding Martha’s Vineyard.
I remember watching Kennedy’s speech about what came to be known as “the Chappaquiddick Affair” on television and understanding for the first time that there were things that could happen which could alter the course of one’s own life forever, errors in judgement so terrible that the punishment would be swift and permanent. It was perhaps one of my first entirely adult thoughts.
Of course, this moment was life-changing for Kennedy in so many ways: he could never be President now. Kopechne’s death also revealed that he was spinning our of control in ways that could no longer be hidden, even by the most well-paid handlers. Given the chaos in his personal life that was revealed subsequently, it seems unlikely that he wasn’t drunk when he drove off Dike bridge in 1969, and it seems unlikely that Mary Jo Kopechne didn’t intend that her drive into the night was supposed to end in flagrante delicto with the handsome, promiscuous Senator who was trying to drink and fuck away the nightmare history of his murdered brothers.
Kennedy’s claim not have been drunk, and not to have been sexually involved with Kopechne seemed false to me at the age of eleven. In retrospect, I think this was remarkable given that I knew nothing about sex, my parents were orderly suburban people, and my own first-hand acquaintance with drinking and fucking away pain (much less depression, heartbreak, adulterous affairs and scandal) was many years off. But I learned in the tabloid press that these things could happen to others, and I began to read the gossip rags avidly. Late weekday afternoons, sweaty from field hockey practice, I would be picked up by my mother. We would drop by the supermarket to pick up a few things, and I acquired my lifetime habit of reading trash in the checkout line. Not infrequently, Teddy and his first wife, Joan Bennett Kennedy, would be plastered all over the front of the National Enquirer after a public, drunken brawl; another accusation of an affair; speculation about divorce; speculation about what lecture “Jackie” (cloaked in dark glasses and vast amounts of lustrous, dark hair) had delivered lately about her martyred husband’s squandered legacy. Teddy’s womanizing became part of the picture I was getting about adult lives during the sexual revolution. I eavesdropped relentlessly, perched at the top of the stairs, as my parents had their evening cocktails and confided in each other about the marriages that were splintering around them. But the Kennedys were bigger, sloppier, more violent than anyone we knew — the grainy pictures, doctored crudely in those pre-photoshop days and taken with wide lenses, were bloated and distraught.
Oh the humiliation. Oh the pain.
In 1978, Joan and Ted separated. In 1982 they divorced. Somewhere in there not one, but two, of their children were treated for potentially fatal cancers. Ted never stopped drinking as far as I know, but he learned to control it. More or less.
And somewhere in there, Ted Kennedy decided to become not just a good Senator, but a great Senator. You can look here for a summary of his career, but highlights include: managing the Immigration Act of 1965 on the Senate floor; creating the national community health center program (1966); the Bilingual Education Act of 1968; amending the Voting Rights Act to lower the voting age to 18; which preceded a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age (1970); expanding federal funding for cancer research; the Meals on Wheels Act (1972); ending military aid to Chile following the 1974 US-backed coup; the Individuals with Disabilites Act (1975); sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa (1985); the Americans With Disabilities Act (1990); the Family and Medical Leave Act (1994); the Child Health Insurance Program (1997). More recently, Kennedy was one of 23 Senators to vote against the war in Iraq. Throughout his life, Senator Kennedy made it his job to fight for the poor, the sick, the elderly, the disabled and service people. Kennedy fought for women’s right to combat roles and, having watched the US go to war in Iraq, he turned his attention to trying to fund and deliver adequate equipment and protective armor to an army that was unprepared by the Bush administration to fight that war.
He fought for women’s right to choose whether to carry a fetus to term. He was perhaps the earliest, and most consistent, defender of rights for GLBTQ people in the Senate. And it was Ted Kennedy who gave us Barack Obama and put every last ounce of his strength behind the election of the first black president of the United States.
What I know now is that a person can do something terrible that can change a life — not just his own, but many lives. And yet that terrible thing can be a moment of choice. Apologies don’t matter when it comes to taking a life; forgiveness is not in our own hands. But it is possible to work for redemption, knowing that redemption can never be complete, and that is what Ted Kennedy did. He did it better than anyone. Ted Kennedy didn’t know me, but I believe to this day that he was my friend, and when he came to the podium, any podium, to speak about the things closest to his heart, I believed that he spoke for me.
And so, goodbye Senator. I will miss you terribly.