While the big liberal media usually find it hard to skip any news related to the Kennedy family, ABC, CBS and NBC breathed not a word about Saturday’s 40th anniversary of Chappaquiddick. On the night of July 18, 1969, Senator Edward Kennedy left a party with 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne and later drove off a bridge. Kennedy left the scene with Kopechne still in the submerged vehicle; he did not call the police until the following morning.
The Saturday and Sunday New York Times and Washington Post also had nothing about Chappaquiddick. Several newspapers did carry a brief, if inadvertent, mention, since on Saturday the Associated Press made it the day’s “Highlight in History” in their re-cap of big news events that happened on a July 18, beating out the start of the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64 and the death of naval hero John Paul Jones in 1792.
But it wasn’t a complete blackout. The new Newsweek (cover date, July 27) features Ted Kennedy on the cover, touting a lengthy essay the Senator wrote in favor of universal health care. Inside the magazine, editor Jon Meacham touted Kennedy as a man whose name “will never slip unremembered into the mists of history,” but talks about Chappaquiddick as a great flaw. “Kennedy's life is more compelling, and more instructive, if it is seen not as the inevitable unfolding of the destiny of a man devoted to public service but as the story of a search for redemption,” Meacham argued.
And over at NPR’s “Political Junkie” blog, Political Editor Ken Rudin wrote Friday about the Chappaquiddick anniversary. He effusively began: “There is no one currently serving in the U.S. Senate who is as respected as Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Despite his unabashed liberalism, he is revered by Republicans as well, for his intelligence, decency and willingness to work across the aisle.”
But after receiving a lot of “ugly” mail from NPR readers over the weekend, Rudin on Monday felt the need to justify his noting of the anniversary: “Chappaquiddick happened. Whatever Kennedy has accomplished in his latter years — and he became a true giant in the Senate — it was a signficant blot on his record. At the time, it said volumes about his maturity and judgment. More significantly, it cost a young woman her life. It doesn't erase what he has done since. But it's part of the record.”
As my colleague Brent Baker noted, ABC and NBC had no problem promoting Kennedy’s Newsweek health care essay in their Sunday night newscasts. Yet even with Kennedy inserting himself into the weekend’s news cycle, the networks — and much of the rest of the press — chose to remain silent about the anniversary of a scandal thought almost certainly would have driven any other politician from office.
Here’s more of how Newsweek’s Meacham addressed Chappaquiddick as part of Kennedy’s legacy:
In the sentiment of the moment — Ted Kennedy is dying, and the subject of his essay for us, health care, is his last great battle — we do him, and ourselves, a kind of disservice if we smooth over the rougher elements of his long story. Forty years ago to the day that we closed this essay, Kennedy drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick in the darkness, crashing into the water and leaving his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, behind as he swam to the surface and left the scene. He did not report the accident until morning; only then was her body found. (When I was growing up in the South, Kennedy and Tip O'Neill were familiar Republican targets, and I remember a bumper sticker that read MORE PEOPLE HAVE DIED IN TED KENNEDY'S CAR THAN AT THREE MILE ISLAND. Not exactly subtle, but there we are.)
Kennedy's life is more compelling, and more instructive, if it is seen not as the inevitable unfolding of the destiny of a man devoted to public service but as the story of a search for redemption. He was only 36 when RFK was assassinated, and 37 when he crashed at Chappaquiddick. His days of irresponsibility lasted for two decades more. Into the early 1990s he embodied the vices of the Kennedy clan more than the virtues, drinking and womanizing to such a degree that he delivered a speech at the school named for his brother at Harvard acknowledging his personal shortcomings and promising to address them.
It is fair, then, to note that when Kennedy calls health-care reform "the cause of my life," he is talking about a life that is hardly a model of sobriety and statesmanship. The important thing, though, is that it is a life that has included the sober and the statesmanlike. The complexity of Kennedy's legacy — the good and the bad, the political achievements and the personal disasters — makes him an accessible, human figure, and a strangely inspirational one. For if Ted Kennedy can successfully battle demons and drink, conquering selfishness just enough to work through the decades for causes other than the satisfaction of his own appetites, then the rest of us can, too....
Over on NPR’s “Political Junkie” blog on Friday, Ken Rudin approached the issue by first touting how Kennedy is “revered” by senators of both parties, but even that was apparently not enough to satisfy NPR readers. Here’s an excerpt of his blog on Friday, followed by his Monday update about the “ugly” mail he received over the weekend:
There is no one currently serving in the U.S. Senate who is as respected as Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Despite his unabashed liberalism, he is revered by Republicans as well, for his intelligence, decency and willingness to work across the aisle.
The discovery that he has brain cancer, and is seriously ill, has added to the depth of feelings about Ted.
We do not know how much longer we are going to have him. Strangely, even as we lost Jack at such a young age, and Bobby even younger, the thought of losing Ted Kennedy, even at 77, seems way too soon.
Needless to say, those feelings of respect and reverence were not always there. And they certainly weren't there 40 years ago tomorrow — July 18, 1969.
On that Friday night, a car driven by Kennedy went over the Dike Bridge off Chappaquiddick Island, on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. The passenger in the car, a 28-year old woman from New Jersey named Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned (or died from asphyxiation). Ted — Teddy then — escaped from the car, tried to save Kopechne in vain, swam to shore, walked back to the cottage where he was staying, and conferred with some aides, including his cousin, Joseph Gargan. They went back to the scene of the accident to try and rescue Kopechne, but failed....
There is a wincing in my face as I type this. Kennedy himself may be close to the end, and to remind readers of this incident now may seem ghoulish and cruel.
But it's an incident that happened. And it was significant. It was the reason he was unseated as Senate Majority Whip in 1971 — by West Virginia's Robert Byrd — and it played a major role in his failure to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980....
For the longest time, Chappaquiddick was a metaphor for all that was wrong with Ted Kennedy. He was a playboy. A lightweight. He got to the Senate in 1962 because he was the president's brother, and moved up as a potential leader — and potential president — for the same reason.
But after the accident, after his humbling loss to Byrd and defeat at the hands of President Jimmy Carter in 1980, after a decade of skirt chasing (much of the time with then-fellow bachelor Chris Dodd), and after a 1991 incident in Florida — when he went to a bar with his son (Patrick Kennedy) and nephew (William Kennedy Smith) that ended in a woman accusing Smith of rape — Kennedy seemed to change. He became a true, serious, and respected legislator. He immersed himself in Senate business, especially in overhauling the nation's health-care system....
Rudin’s Monday blog:
I received a lot of mail, a good percentage of it ugly, over my Friday post about the 40th anniversary of Chappaquiddick — the shorthand description of the July 1969 accident in which a car Sen. Ted Kennedy was driving went over a bridge, resulting in the death of a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne.
Much of the mail took me to task for having the insensitivity (their word) of reminding people of the accident as Kennedy is suffering from brain cancer. Others wondered why I would mention this when "what Bush and Cheney did was much worse" (their words). As if one thing had anything to do with the other.
With Kennedy approaching the end of his 46-year Senate career — the third longest in history — I was aware that this post might be considered controversial. At the same time, I balanced the post by talking about the Massachusetts Democrat's long career, his political highs and lows, and his legislative accomplishments. Anyone who has been covering politicians for as long as I have knows that there are good and bad in everyone, and to ignore the bad stuff because it might be painful to remember is a disservice to history....
Chappaquiddick happened. Whatever Kennedy has accomplished in his latter years — and he became a true giant in the Senate — it was a significant blot on his record. At the time, it said volumes about his maturity and judgment. More significantly, it cost a young woman her life. It doesn't erase what he has done since. But it's part of the record.