Sunday, August 30, 2009

Kennedy Controversial in Death

This morning — the day after Ted Kennedy was buried near the graves of his brothers, John and Robert — his praises are being sung in most places.

There are exceptions, of course. There always are. Sometimes such voices are in a distinct minority, and they don't always agree on the reasons for dissenting.

Yet, dissent they do.

Which, I guess, explains, in part, my fascination with Maureen Callahan's column in the New York Post, which carries the headline "Kennedy's Free Pass With Women."

Now, I don't suppose it should come as any surprise to most people that the Post's columnists are critical of Kennedy, even in death. In a little over a week, it will be one year since the Post went against the grain in New York and endorsed John McCain over Barack Obama. It also endorsed the re–election of George W. Bush in 2004.

Its political leanings should be obvious.

And I have to give Callahan credit — to a certain extent. I agree that, given Kennedy's youthful behavior, his treatment from women has been somewhat bewildering.

But she is wrong when she opens her column by saying, "In all the obits published and specials aired this week, Chappaquiddick gets a few paragraphs, a few minutes, a tidy recapping of the events of July 19, 1969."

That misrepresents the facts.

Callahan's colleague at the Post, Jonah Goldberg, wrote that Kennedy's death was "marked by cynicism, opportunism and irony," with Democrats seeking to enhance their position on health care reform by naming the bill after Kennedy months after they denounced Rush Limbaugh for suggesting that was precisely what they would do. Goldberg also complained that Mary Jo Kopechne's death had been "minimized" in an effort "to protect the Kennedy brand."

Likewise, in his article in Forbes, Victor Davis Hanson complained that "a clear case of involuntary manslaughter for the 'average citizen' was reduced to a traffic violation for the 'high and mighty.' "

In Hanson's eyes, it was one of many examples of a double standard that was applied to Kennedy during his life.

Recently, I observed that Chappaquiddick has been mentioned frequently in the days since Kennedy's death.

True, sometimes it was a passing reference. But other voices were so angry that they made Chappaquiddick seem like a recent event, not something that happened 40 years ago.

It reminded me of a time when I was about 12. My family was visiting my grandparents in Dallas during the Christmas holidays, and I had been out shopping with the son of my parents' friends. I found (and purchased with my Christmas money) a three–record boxed set of audio recordings from the 1960s. As I remember, it was produced by CBS, it was narrated by Walter Cronkite and it was called "I Can Hear It Now: The Sixties."

I was interested in the presidency from an early age, and I was interested in American history as well so a collection of sound clips from that turbulent decade was right up my alley. At the time, I think I assumed it was intended to be one volume of a more extensive audio library, but if it was, I never saw any other volumes that were dedicated to other decades.

Anyway, when we returned from our shopping trip and I was waiting for my mother to pick me up, I showed my prize to my friend's mother and began pointing out what was included in the collection. I mentioned that a portion of Ted Kennedy's eulogy to his brother Bobby was on the recording, and my friend's mother said simply, "He killed that girl."

I don't recall any sound clips from Chappaquiddick that were included in the collection. And I don't recall bringing up Chappaquiddick in the conversation. But the mere mention of Kennedy's name prompted that observation.

Granted, only a few years had passed and the wound was still raw. But, for some people, the wound is still raw, four decades later.

That shouldn't mitigate Kennedy's actions. And it's possible Chappaquiddick did work against him when he unsuccessfully sought the presidential nomination in 1980. I was a college student in Arkansas at the time, and I voted for President Carter in the state primary. I wasn't the only one. Kennedy lost that primary by more than a 3–to–1 margin. In fact, I don't remember the Kennedy campaign making much of an effort to win the Arkansas primary.

Unless a younger Kennedy seeks the presidency, that was the only opportunity I will have to vote for a Kennedy. When Kennedy challenged President Carter, I remember some commentators bringing up Chappaquiddick, but I don't remember it being a major issue. Maybe it would have been if Kennedy had appeared to be a more serious contender for the nomination.

Anyway, Chappaquiddick was never a factor for me when I voted in the Arkansas primary. I was then, as I am now, an admirer of President Carter. There was never any question in my mind how I would vote in that primary.

And, rightly or wrongly, I remember blaming Kennedy's challenge in the primaries for Carter's eventual loss to Ronald Reagan. I felt that Kennedy forced Carter to squander time and resources to win his nomination instead of focusing on the general election campaign.

If that is true, then it also may be true, as I have heard recently, that Kennedy's quixotic presidential campaign led to the implementation of the many Reagan policies that he spent the last decades of his career fighting against.

Kennedy's ultimate influence on the 1980 election may have been an incorrect interpretation. But that is how I saw it.

Similarly, I guess, those who have written about Chappaquiddick in recent days may have misinterpreted its influence on the last four decades, but that is how they see it.

That's the tricky thing about history. It is open to all sorts of alternative interpretations.

Would Carter have been defeated by Reagan anyway? Maybe. That is something we will never know.

And we will never know the truth about Chappaquiddick.

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