The big loser of the confirmation hearings so far is Teddy Kennedy. In his hectoring and tasteless attack on Samuel Alito he has succeeded in nothing but reminding us of his (Teddy’s) past. While Alito may have been associated with a creepy Princeton alumni publication of twenty years ago, Kennedy was associated was something much worse than that – and we all know it. Those of us of a certain age remember well his dazed expression when questioned about the events on Chappaquiddick, the answers that never added up, the story that never computed (still doesn’t) and the moral, emotional and intellectual contortions we (supporters like me) went through to try to believe him.
I even knew a woman who went to the party in Chappaquiddick that night. She was so loyal she refused to talk about it her entire life as far as I know. Kennedy himself worked for years to rebuild his reputation, achieved that to a great extent by working hard on issues like health care. Of course tragedy had occurred within his own family and we all had compassion for him, forgiving him his well-known excesses – the weight, the booze, the allegations of womanizing.
But then anger started to build. It seemed to come simultaneously from within and without. In recent years, a man who was famous for being able to “work across the aisle” (with Orrin Hatch, notably) began to manifest rage against his opponents out of proportion to reality. For some reason, he had morphed into a hatchet man (was this rage against the self?). Then, most recently, at these confirmation hearings, it seemed as if he had come adrift of his moorings. There was something weirdly self-destructive in his questioning of Alito, the bizarre insinuation that the judge could be a racist (hello, Joseph Kennedy!) when everyone in the room knew Alito wasn’t, the obviously staff-driven nonsense about what newspaper articles Alito may have read twenty years ago, the intimations of sexism on the judge’s part that quite clearly didn’t exist. Where did this all come from? Was Teddy just preaching to the choir for his next campaign war chest? He needs that like a hole in the head. No, this anger was coming from a deeper, sadder place.
When Mrs. Alito walked out of the room, I thought of Mary Jo Kopechne.