Chappaquiddick just won't go away

Senator Kennedy's political undoing -- and he seems almost undone in his presidential bid -- is of his own doing. He can't, try as he will, shake his past -- such as stories about cheating at college and, above all, the continuing Chappaquiddick controversy.

It's the "agin" vote that is sinking Kennedy, much of it tied to a negative assessment of his character.

This was quite apparent in the Iowa caucusing. Democrats who had indicated less than enthusiasm and even opposition to Carter were showing up to give their support to the President.

And why? Many told their neighbors at these gatherings that while they favored Kennedy's position on the issues they simply didn't want Kennedy as president. Their reasons, stated in various ways:

Kennedy isn't the kind of person that should be president. He lacks character. He should be a good example to their children -- and he isn't.

Now that's a judgment based on a personal-morality point of view that some may say is unfair. Kennedy admitted to the cheating but won't admit to any moral improprieties at Chappaquiddick or elsewhere. But the point is that this judgment is being made by a lot of voters. And that is what is causing the Kennedy campaign apparently to be caving in.

Sure, some people fault Kennedy because of his admission of panic at Chappaquiddick. But the anti-Kennedy comments being heard in Iowa centered mainly on questions about lying, cover-up, and sex behavior.

Many members of the United Auto Workers, advised to vote for Kennedy, were defying this counsel and backing Carter because of the moral issue. Reporters found this particularly true in Waterloo, a UAW stronghold.And many Roman Catholics were abandoning their inclinations to vote for another Kennedy because they had questions about this Kennedy's character. This was particularly true in Dubuque.

Is this moral judgment confined to Iowans? No. Several polls have shown this feeling is widespread.

Recently a poll released by Newsweek magazine showed that doubts about the propriety of the Senator's behavior at Chappaquiddick have risen significantly in the past six months -- with 55 percent of those responding now saying he acted improperly. Further, the poll indicated that people who harbored such doubts were much less likely than others to vote for Senator Kennedy.

It was a slip on his part but Kennedy got to the basic point involved in Chappaquiddick when, in answer to a question on ABC's "Issues and Answers," he said: "The issue that is raised on this is the question of character and leadership."

Right. But then Kennedy began a thesis which he had pursued before in responding to the Chappaquiddick question:

That the real moral issue in the campaign did not relate to his personal behavior but had to do with "elderly people who don't have enough heating oil or aren't able to afford their prescription drugs and cannot deal effectively with the problems of their times."

The program ended before he could go further in trying to divert the listeners' focus from his conduct to some other issues which, concededly, did relate to public policy questions with moral elements.

But Kennedy, try as he may, has been unable to put Chappaquiddick and related questions behind him. The more he tries to deal with the problem the more the problem grows.

When he started campaigning, polls showed that most of the public had forgotten Chappaquiddick -- or was too young to have known much about it.

But now, through new stories about Chappaquiddick and repeated questions of Kennedy about Chappaquiddick -- and repeated evasive responses -- the issue has grown bigger and bigger. And it is currently encumbering the Massachusetts Senator to the point where a political comeback seems tied now to somehow being able to dispose of the embarrassing questions. The likelihood of that seems very remote.

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