As Mark Steyn writes, “We are enjoined not to speak ill of the dead. But, when an entire nation – or, at any rate, its ‘mainstream’ media culture – declines to speak the truth about the dead, we are certainly entitled to speak ill of such false eulogists”:
In its coverage of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s passing, America’s TV networks are creepily reminiscent of those plays Sam Shepard used to write about some dysfunctional inbred hardscrabble Appalachian household where there’s a baby buried in the backyard but everyone agreed years ago never to mention it.
In this case, the unmentionable corpse is Mary Jo Kopechne, 1940-1969. If you have to bring up the, ah, circumstances of that year of decease, keep it general, keep it vague. As Kennedy flack Ted Sorensen put it in Time magazine:
“Both a plane crash in Massachusetts in 1964 and the ugly automobile accident on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969 almost cost him his life …”
That’s the way to do it! An “accident,” “ugly” in some unspecified way, just happened to happen – and only to him, nobody else. Ted’s the star, and there’s no room to namecheck the bit players. What befell him was … a thing, a place. As Joan Vennochi wrote in The Boston Globe:
“Like all figures in history – and like those in the Bible, for that matter – Kennedy came with flaws. Moses had a temper. Peter betrayed Jesus. Kennedy had Chappaquiddick, a moment of tremendous moral collapse.”
Actually, Peter denied Jesus, rather than “betrayed” him, but close enough for Catholic-lite Massachusetts. And if Moses having a temper never led him to leave some gal at the bottom of the Red Sea, well, let’s face it, he doesn’t have Ted’s tremendous legislative legacy, does he? Perhaps it’s kinder simply to airbrush out of the record the name of the unfortunate complicating factor on the receiving end of that moment of “tremendous moral collapse.” When Kennedy cheerleaders do get around to mentioning her, it’s usually to add insult to fatal injury. As Teddy’s biographer Adam Clymer wrote, Edward Kennedy’s “achievements as a senator have towered over his time, changing the lives of far more Americans than remember the name Mary Jo Kopechne.”
You can’t make an omelet without breaking chicks, right? I don’t know how many lives the senator changed – he certainly changed Mary Jo’s – but you’re struck less by the precise arithmetic than by the basic equation: How many changed lives justify leaving a human being struggling for breath for up to five hours pressed up against the window in a small, shrinking air pocket in Teddy’s Oldsmobile? If the senator had managed to change the lives of even more Americans, would it have been OK to leave a couple more broads down there? Hey, why not? At the Huffington Post, Melissa Lafsky mused on what Mary Jo “would have thought about arguably being a catalyst for the most successful Senate career in history … Who knows – maybe she’d feel it was worth it.” What true-believing liberal lass wouldn’t be honored to be dispatched by that death panel?
My favorite bit of old media hagiography so far is the angle that Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune hits upon: “How wall-to-wall Chappaquiddick would have changed history — for the worse”:
Of course every network would have had special logos featuring bridges, water, wrecked cars or portraits of the main players. And each would have had a snappy title for their non-stop coverage:
“The Bridge Too Far,” “Tragedy on the Vineyard,” “Teddy in Trouble,” “Camelot Submerged” and so on.
If we’d had insatiable 24/7 cable news networks in July 1969, the accident on Chappaquiddick Island in which a passenger in a car driven by Sen. Edward Kennedy drowned would likely have dominated the national consciousness for months.
Special programs every night devoted to nothing but pundits bickering over the depths of the 37-year-old Kennedy’s responsibility for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, 28.
Town-hall-style chat shows every afternoon in which ordinary Americans issued their verdicts and sentences before the evidence was in.
Probing interviews every morning with experts offering their views on whether Kopechne would have survived had Kennedy quickly gone for help.
* * *
Chappaquiddick was a big story anyway and badly damaged the reputation of the man then seen as the surviving prince and heir apparent of American politics.
But, as DuMont said, there were just three broadcast networks in 1969 offering half-hour newscasts that seldom dwelled for long on any one story. Technological limitations made live remote broadcasting very cumbersome.
“And most talk radio was local and fluffy” under fairness-doctrine restrictions, DuMont said. “So you didn’t have nationally syndicated partisan hosts banging the drum day in and day out saying Kennedy had to go.”
And perhaps therefore, he didn’t go. The following year Massachusetts voters resoundingly re-elected him to the Senate. Though the Chappaquiddick scandal probably kept him out of the White House, it never cost him the seat he held until his death this week at age 77.
This thought experiment invites a question to which there is no nonpartisan answer: Was it just as well that we didn’t — couldn’t — have a media feeding frenzy over Chappaquiddick in 1969? Would the nation have been better off if Kennedy had been shamed into private life?
Or, as I believe, is the nation — particularly our disabled and disadvantaged residents — better off for the 40 years of service he was able to render after that terrible night?
The momentary satisfaction of destroying Ted Kennedy for his failings would have had a significant price. Something to keep in mind when the next fallen figure, Democrat or Republican, stumbles into the heat lamp.
Oh sure — let’s watch how the Trib pulls its punches the next time a plumber or beauty contest winner utters a politically incorrect phrase, or proffers a question to a candidate that the gatekeepers of the overculture would rather not be asked.
Much like the legacy journalists who lamented the rise of the Blogosphere, Zorn is apparently someone — at least in this case — who longs for an era in which there was less news and opinion; when there were only three commercial networks and they couldn’t devote wall-to-wall coverage to a story. When a politician, provided his ideology was the same as the vast number of journalists, could get away with anything. But what a story the gatekeepers tried to keep submerged even today, as Daniel J. Flynn describes the incident, in a must-read American Spectator article:
After finishing ninth in a field of 31 in a regatta, Kennedy spent a Saturday partying with six unmarried women and a group of married men. Pounding rum and cokes, Kennedy absconded from the booze barbecue with Mary Jo Kopechne, whom he drove to her death off a narrow, unlit bridge without guardrails. For almost ten hours, the senator dried out, called numerous acquaintances, and tried to get his cousin to go along with a cover story that Kopechne had been alone at the wheel — but did nothing to alert authorities to his party companion’s plight. Political fixers fixed him with a neck brace, produced a renewed driver’s license for the unlicensed senator, and released incomplete phone records — exposed by the New York Times a decade later — that erased the calls he made between the time of the accident and the time of his reporting it. Characteristic of the treatment he had received his whole life, Kennedy avoided jail and overwhelmingly won reelection the next year. His mother responded by initially disinheriting Ted’s cousin, her orphaned nephew, who refused to go along with her son’s subterfuge.Like his previous mistakes, the accident did nothing to alter Kennedy’s misbehavior. Here, caught in broad daylight in the marital act on the floor of a posh Washington restaurant. There, waking his son and nephew to carouse the Palm Beach bars on Good Friday — leading to accusations of a rape occurring within earshot of the senator. Whereas assassinations and World War II kept his older brothers forever young, Ted’s reckless behavior made him the Peter Pan of the Senate. Though his jet-black hair turned snow white, and his football physique transformed into a Fritos physique, Ted Kennedy remained in suspended adolescence for most of his 47 years in the elected office.
Insulated by the consequences of his behavior, Kennedy was also shielded from the consequences of his policies. He was the champion of busing who kept his own children far from the public schools; an advocate of publicly funded campaigns who bankrolled his political career with his family’s shadowy financing; an icon of feminists who used women like Kleenex, serially harassed members of the opposite sex, and spent ten hours attempting to rescue his political career as he denied the young women suffocating in an air pocket in his Oldsmobile professional rescue attempts; and the primary booster of socialized medicine who assembled a dream team of neurosurgeons to consult on his treatment for brain cancer. The proverbial limousine liberal was made real in Trustfund Ted.
Particularly galling to Senator Kennedy’s amazed antagonists was the manner in which those that he wronged rewarded rather than punished their transgressor. Edward McCormack’s family chose Kennedy to deliver a eulogy at his funeral. In anticipation of the 1976 race for the presidency, Joe and Gwen Kopechne offered that they would cast their votes for Kennedy should he run. More than a half century after expelling Ted Kennedy, Harvard awarded him an honorary degree and celebrated him at The Game, where Harvard Stadium’s confused spectators were left wondering how Ted Kennedy ’54 could have caught a touchdown pass in the 1955 Harvard-Yale game.
“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life,” Ted eulogized slain brother Bobby in 1969. More than four decades later, Ted Kennedy’s conservative detractors are wondering why the senator’s admirers aren’t heeding such advice.
Long before the legacy media made it obvious that they were deeply in the tank for Barack Obama, first as a candidate, then as president, they were almost as baldly obsessed with keeping Senator Kennedy’s record as spotless as it could possibly be. Even in the 21st century, you still see a journalist trotting the hoary old trope that “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, from journalism’s more wild-and-woolly days, generally attributed to another Chicago newspaper man, Finley Peter Dunne.
That myth also died on July 18, 1969. Only there were less media around back then to report its demise.
Update: Jennifer Rubin adds:
An apt summary of Ted Kennedy by Bill Kristol: “He continued to advocate policies that had long-ago been proven — in my view — not to work, and the one thing, again, beside his personal life, the one thing I really would not forgive him for was the speech denouncing Robert Bork totally unfairly. He was entitled to oppose Robert Bork when he was nominated to the Supreme Court, but this famous speech in which he made it seem as if Bob Bork was in favor of segregating blacks and discriminating against people was really not — a low-point in popular American politics.” Another low point was his personal attacks on now Justice Sam Alito. Kennedy was in a class by himself when it came to judicial nominees.
As Jonah Goldberg wrote a couple of years ago, Teddy’s rapaciousness did much to shape today’s DC.