Revering Ted Kennedy ... And Remembering The Stain Of 40 Years Ago

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Saturday is the 40th anniversary of Chappaquiddick, an incident that has haunted Sen. Ted Kennedy for much of his political career. And it comes at a time when the Massachusetts Democrat may be nearing the end. hide caption

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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.

The next morning — ten hours later — he reported the accident to the police.

There were demands he resign. He was besieged with hate mail. I still remember his televised address to his Massachusetts constituents, which was broadcast nationwide, where he said he wouldn't quit.

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. Even in 1988, when he serenaded the Democratic faithful at the Atlanta convention with his "Where Was George" refrain — wondering where Vice President George Bush has been during the past eight years — Republicans followed shortly after at their New Orleans convention with their "Where Was Ted," and reminding people of Chappaquiddick (see third button above).

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. Once so young that they had to put a placeholder in the Senate for two years until he was old enough to succeed his brother, he is now the third most senior lawmaker in the history of the Senate.

Not everyone will be pleased I brought up this anniversary. But it's signifcant part of man who has proven to be, warts and all, one of the giants in the history of the U.S. Senate.

(See my "Kennedy and Conventions: An Emotional History." Political Junkie, Aug. 26, 2008.)

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