We interrupt this program…

I promise, I started working on this week’s Historical Event. However, something has been nagging at me, and I want to write it down.

It’s about Ted Kennedy.

He’s dead, and he was very controversial in life, but boy, is he ever controversial in death. I started by looking on the internets (perhaps you’ve heard of this series of tubes?) for people, the religious right, thanking God for his death. Plenty of them. But then I found something else. A very interesting trend to condemn Kennedy for his actions surrounding the infamous Chappaquiddick Incident.

That word is so famous in the US that it shows up as a word in the freaking dictionary. For those of us who are unfamiliar with this event, Ted Kennedy drove a car into the Chappaquiddick River, and the lady in the car with him, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. There are a lot of questions around it, but I want to point you here for all the details. Kennedy plead guilty to leaving the scene of an accident causing injury, and it followed him his entire career, up until his death, and beyond.

For all his faults, Ted Kennedy was a great man. Now, great does not mean good – great means that he had, and wielded, large influence in the world. I shall leave the judgment of Kennedy’s goodness to others. But I will admit, this blog post bothers me somewhat.

It bothers me for a few reasons, and all of them are probably controversial. I do enjoy reading Womanist Musings from time to time, when I see an interesting title on Jen’s blogroll. I’m a late-comer to learning about Kopechne’s death, because, as the guest author of this post points out, it’s something often ignored when discussing Kennedy’s life, or often referred to as just “Chappaquiddick”. This is wrong. Kennedy’s actions resulted in the horrific death of a woman in the prime of her life, and he should always be tied to it.

However.

Reading this post, which did not have a link back to the original site, I felt quietly angered by the tone of it. I think the bulk of my anger, originally, came from the thought of “disrespect” to Kennedy’s legacy, but I have realized that he deserves to be mentioned as the man who allowed a woman to die. A woman, who by all accounts was beautiful, vibrant, and intelligent.

But I think the guest poster makes many mistakes in their analysis of the situation. The facts of Chappaquiddick can never be known, as the only man who was there and lived is now dead. We have only suppositions. There can be no doubt that the lack of a strong investigation into Kennedy’s actions is a result of the preference shown to the Senator and his family name in Massachusetts. But that doesn’t change that we do not know what happened.

Condemnation in the eyes of the law without evidence beyond the shadow of a doubt should be impossible. This evidence was never gathered, or at least, not publicly revealed if it was. Kennedy claimed to have a concussion. Medical records were never released proving it; however, the same sort of behaviour that a drunk person shows can be shown during a concussion. The end result? We cannot know which is true.

I am not trying to suggest Kennedy was innocent of a thing, but I am saying that there are two possible explanations for his behaviour that night – one, he was under the influence of alcohol, and chose to avoid the consequences of his actions. Two, he was concussed, and didn’t know what exactly was going on. It’s probably the former, but it can’t be proven – and that’s how our system is supposed to work.

If there was another thing that bothered me, it was how the author of the guest post supposed that there would be no mention of Mary Jo Kopechne. She was, in fact, mentioned in every biography and obituary of Kennedy that I read. Taegan Goddard put up a good summary of it. It was mentioned by commentators at Kennedy’s funeral and burial. She’ll forever be linked to that woman who made the unfortunate mistake of getting in the car with Ted Kennedy.

Ted Kennedy’s life after Kopechne died as a result of his actions was markedly different. I think there was a certain new nature added in. Yes, he ran for president, but he didn’t seem to know why he did. He seemed content to serve in the Senate, and probably, in doing so, was more important than either of his brothers. Kennedy spoke in favour of civil rights for everyone he could; the Irish, the Bengalis, blacks in both the USA and South Africa. He fought the very conservative Robert Bork, knowing that Bork’s opinions would lead to a loss of civil rights – especially women’s rights and minority rights.

If I had driven that car in 1969, I probably would have gone to jail. For a variety of reasons, Ted Kennedy didn’t. Because he was a Senator. A Kennedy. Famous. Knew the right people. A young woman died a horrible death. But, having said that, he took a life that should have been spent in prison and worked tirelessly for the rights of others. He spent it in the service of people, and probably made more of his life than any other could have. He took the same things that kept him out of prison – being a Senator, a Kennedy, knowing the right people – and put those things to work for the underprivileged in America and around the world.

You can not bring anyone back from the dead, and nothing can excuse Kennedy’s actions on that night that killed someone with great, absolute great potential and possibilities, that horrifically destroyed a life. But just perhaps, if you’re willing to make the leap of faith that Kennedy was a drunk who destroyed Kopechne, maybe you can make the same leap of faith that he tried to make a difference in the lives of everyone, to make up for the one life he was so callous over.

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