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“One of the Most Compassionate Men:” Senator Ted Kennedy’s Recent History

September 5, 2012, 9:58 am

Sen. Edward Kennedy is escorted by troopers as he leaves court in Edgartown, Mass. (AP)

After an hour and a half riding around Brooklyn on the subway due to an F train mishap, Tenured Radical arrived home last night just in time to hear these words, spoken by Bill Clinton, as part of the Teddy Kennedy tribute video at the Democratic National Convention. I have always been a huge Teddy fan, but it did occur to me that one of the unbridgeable divided between ordinary Dems and ordinary Repubs might be the collective amnesia about why Teddy could never be president. There was the drinking, the womanizing, and the nasty divorce. As Teddy and Joan hurtled their way to destruction, every moment was documented in supermarket tabloids, complete with the ugly, frantic pictures that were typical of that genre even prior to Photoshop.

And yet, as one of my students pointed out in class yesterday, divorce ceased to be a permanent political disability in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected. Arguably, that was true even earlier, in 1976, when Reagan nearly unseated Gerald Ford as the GOP nominee.

So what am I not mentioning? What event that the GOP will bring up over and over, but Dems never do? Chappaquiddick, when the womanizing and the drinking led to a horrible automobile accident on July 18 1969 that Kennedy escaped but Mary Jo Kopechne did not. As he swam to safety, she drowned in 12 feet of water.

Kennedy pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a suspended sentence. Although the drinking did not stop until his second marriage, subsequently he became a far more serious person, not just another Kennedy to be slotted into an empty Massachusetts seat. He became a staunch friend to the poor and to women; feminist organizations played a significant role in putting Chappaquiddick in the past when they fueled Kennedy’s run for the Democratic nomination in 1980, angered at Jimmy Carter’s Carter’s support for limiting abortion, and other policies that had a particularly brutal impact on poor women and children. As last night’s video tribute also pointed out, Kennedy made a continuing commitment to civil rights that embraced the GLBT community as well. After 1980, Kennedy dug in to become one of the best Senators we have ever had.

How times have changed: no political career could survive an event like Chappaquiddick now. Even though staffers — male and female — are still being chased around the desk, when extra-marital sex play becomes public, a promising political career becomes a dead letter. Your wife has to do a perp walk in front of the press, and they make an award-winning TV series about you. We now tolerate divorce: we don’t tolerate the shenanigans that often don’t lead to divorce.

Kennedy’s character — while marred by personal failings that surely hurt many people, including members of his own family — had a great deal of good in it, and he acted on that. Instead of not talking about Chappaquiddick, perhaps we should.  A historian of that moment might, without excusing the death of a young woman who ought to be watching her grandchildren grow up, might allow us to re-imagine what redemption looks like.  Perhaps it could open our eyes to the possibility that people of talent and good will ought not to be shuffled out of public life like yesterday’s trash when they do things that merely embarrass us.

Speaking of recent history: In a post dedicated to the legal difficulties of doing recent history in England, newly arrived blogger Evan Smith gives a nice shout out to to Laura Brown and Nancy Kaiser, two University of North Carolina archivists who contributed to Doing Recent History (University of Georgia Press, 2012), an edited volume edited by Renee Romano and myself. If this post is any indication, Hatful of History is worth adding to your reader.

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