More than any other public figure, Ted Kennedy is the conscience of the Democratic Party's liberal wing. But to say "Kennedy" and "conscience" in the same breath is to invite ridicule. The senator's after-hours behavior is testing the loyalty of some of his core supporters: women who call themselves feminists. If they continue to support the public Kennedy, are they condoning his private life? Kennedy's apparently compulsive womanizing, his frisky behavior in Palm Beach and his fraternity-boy passion for drinking do not square with the feminist model for the modern man. "Kennedy has the virtue of consistency, both the good and the bad," says Bebe Bahnsen, a consultant to pro-choice groups.
Feminist leaders are standing by their man, just as the Kennedy women have always done. They separate private and public morality, and cite Kennedy's record on everything from civil rights to child care. "The behavior that really counts is on the floor of the Senate," says Gabrielle Lange, acting press secretary for the National Organization for Women. Kennedy has never strayed from the feminist agenda. Yet to call his private life a separate matter is to hide behind an outdated gentlemen's code. Women's groups know it, and they're squirming. "Sure, there's a discomfort level," says Sharon Rodine, president of the National Women's Political Caucus.
Women in the forefront of feminist groups tend to be older and more forgiving of Kennedy. They've been through a lot with him. They know there aren't many people on Capitol Hill in positions of power who are responsive to their issues. Younger women are harsher in their judgment. "I don't have the same starry-eyed respect for him," says Melissa Early, 24, newsletter editor for the Women's Information Network. Margo Michaels, 24, a rape counselor, thinks it is "reprehensible" that Kennedy referred to the woman who brought rape charges against his nephew as "some girl." "This is Mr. Feminist talking," says Michaels. "I think he has a lack of respect for women."
Politicians can become symbols for causes that bear no resemblance to their private lives. Ronald Reagan stood for traditional family values, yet he was divorced and had strained relations with his children. Kennedy's defenders tie his conflicting personas to his family tragedies and the realization that he will never be president. His anguish (and theirs) is part of the myth. "It may be hard to hear us say we look to him for political leadership," says Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League. "But without him, I'm not sure where women would be in this country."
Kennedy's friends argue that as a bachelor, the senator is "entitled" to date. But the spectacle of Kennedy, 59, rousting his son and nephew out of bed to go drinking at midnight prompted Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman to question the durability of "the careful cardboard barrier" between the serious senator and his other self. If there are two Kennedys, should one be held accountable for the other? In the more than 20 years since Chappaquiddick, Kennedy has worked hard to rebuild his respectability. His periodic binges, whether with food, women or alcohol, are footnotes to that tragedy and have not yet compromised his effectiveness in the Senate. Kennedy has told his colleague and friend, Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, that he knows he should quit drinking--but he didn't say when. Kennedy women have traditionally traded their silence for status, but if Kennedy can't keep up his end of the bargain, American women may not be so tolerant.