The city editor at a small daily in Iowa sent a reporter out last week to gather reminiscences of Senator Kennedy. "Be sure to ask about Chappaquiddick," he said, a request that drew a blank look. The young reporter had no idea what he was talking about. When this story was related to me by the editor's wife, who is a baby boomer steeped in Kennedy lore, I thought how relieved the Kennedy family must be that a generation of Americans doesn't automatically reflect on the tragedy that for so long clouded Ted Kennedy's life and career.
For those who remember, there's no forgiving the incident that took the life of Mary Jo Kopechne, a campaign aide left to drown in the waters of Chappaquiddick Island. The moment embodied an era that was mercifully ending. For a long time a rich and powerful man in the public eye could reasonably expect that women would simply be playthings, and that private sins would remain just that: private. That was changing in 1969. Feminism was moving toward the mainstream, and the image of a Kennedy leaving a woman to drown seemed to epitomize the inequality of the sexes. But always Kennedy managed to muddle through and even grow in stature, to become known as a Great American. Some Americans—men and women—are infuriated by this.
If you're not sympathetic to Kennedy's politics, you'll note that he had a staggeringly privileged life, and got away with something he shouldn't have. It's easy to tally his other failings. In 1980, when he ran for president, his wife Joan dutifully stood by his side, but it was clear from her body language that the marriage was in trouble, and soon after the campaign ended, so did the marriage. Joan was one of many political wives who have been subjected to the humiliation of publicly pretending to be in a loving marriage that was a sham. Kennedy was a rogue, and his escapades, fueled by alcohol, were well documented. He was single through much of the '80s and into the '90s, and his risky behavior blew up on him one night in Palm Beach, Fla., when a bout of drinking ended with his nephew William Kennedy Smith being charged with date rape. A sensational trial followed, after which Smith was acquitted. But there was no escaping that Kennedy, the scion of the family, had damaged himself further. Even he knew it, saying at one point that he recognized "the faults in the conduct of my private life."
But if you are sympathetic to Kennedy and his politics, as I am, you're mindful that the accident at Chappaquiddick happened in 1969, the year after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. (Ted, just 36 and the last of the brothers, shouldered the burden of 11 more fatherless nieces and nephews.) You're also willing to measure the benefits that Kennedy brought to countless people through his politics, and give them proper weight on the scales of the man's record. Finally, if you measure his capacity to reform himself, you tip the scales further.
Organized women's groups overlooked a lot to stand by the senator from Massachusetts. Feminists who proclaimed "The personal is the political" made an exception for Kennedy. They argued that the political outweighs the personal: if a politician's private life doesn't interfere with his public life, why should it be a problem? You have to search hard to find an example where Kennedy's personal behavior affected his public life. The only one I recall was during the height of the Palm Beach trial, when the Senate was in the midst of confirming Clarence Thomas. Kennedy was silent on the charges of sexual harassment that Anita Hill brought against Thomas. At a time when liberals really needed him, the contradiction between Kennedy's public and private values was too great for him to speak out, and he was effectively muzzled.
That was a turning point. After publicly acknowledging his flaws—though not quite apologizing—Kennedy worked harder than ever to improve other people's lives as a way, perhaps, to justify his own. He was the indispensable man on women's issues, social justice, disability laws, health reform, and civil rights. As an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts, he was not raised to allow women to make their own reproductive choices. But he was at the center of the battle, defeating Robert Bork on the issue of privacy—which was central to arguments about the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade.
One of the loudest applause lines in his 1980 convention speech was his declaration that it was "Founding Mothers as well as Founding Fathers" who made this country great. He believed that—or at least he acted on it, which is more important. In addition to his strong support for a woman's right to choose, he pushed through legislation for equal rights.
For many women, his past is an understandable barrier to seeing him as a great leader. But whatever mixed feelings women may have, a fair reading of his life is one of redemption. This is especially true since his marriage to Victoria Reggie in 1992, when he seemed to have found a peace that eluded him before. In the nearly two decades since, his life was a lot fuller and perhaps more meaningful than it had been.
During this time, women who agreed with his politics still looked to him for leadership—and followed him. When Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama at a critical point in the 2008 presidential election, women who supported Hillary Clinton were furious, and a few diehards accused Kennedy of abandoning his long commitment to the advancement of women. Other women, though, valued the way he advanced their interests even though he had done things they found reprehensible. For some women, reverence for Kennedy stopped with Chappaquiddick. The rest of us have a very different view: Kennedy had the gift of time to make amends, and we were the beneficiaries of that.