Ten years after the end of the judicial proceedings on Chappaquiddick -- and after ten years of political exploitation of the tragedy -- is it possible to gain some kind of perspective on its real significance? Only if we see it in human terms, rather than as a piece of unfinished detective work.
There is no great mystery about Chappaquiddick. Edward Kennedy was responsible for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. He admitted it, took the penalty meted out to him, and has called his behavior after the accident indefensible. We all like to play detective, and if people are still arguing about the "real" assassin of John Kennedy or of Martin Luther King -- events that happened in broad daylight, with witnesses -- inevitably amateur sleuths will argue over the "real" cause of an event that occurred on a lonely road, in the dark of night.
I doubt that all the talk about wrong turns and telephone calls and currents and the like will throw much light on the non-mystery. The fact that the amateur sleuths have advanced a half dozen different and conflicting "explanations" of Chappaquiddick tells us something about the validity of these stories. Kennedy's behavior after the accident, in my view, can best be explained in human terms. If any one of us caused someone's death -- killed a person while driving on a highway, for example -- it would take us a while to accept the enormity of what we had done. In Kennedy's case, amid his physical shock he had to deal with a series of crushing psychological shocks, as he realized the impact of the accident on Mary Jo's family, on his own family, on people everywhere who had admired the Kennedys. An accident that for us would be a backpage story in the local paper for him would be frontpage news in virtually every newspaper in the Western world.
Some of Kennedy's critics do view Chappaquiddick in these human and personal terms but ask a more serious question: What does it imply as to Kennedy's likely behavior under pressure in the White House, if he should be elected president some day?
Chappaquiddick was a personalm crisis, with public implications. White House crunches are publicm crises, though of course with personal involvements. I can imagine no crisis in the White House comparable to the physical and psychological shock of Chappaquiddick. Contrary to Hollywood images of the Oval Office, the place does not resemble a battalion headquarters under bombardment.The White House is organized to allow a president to wait, to deliberate, to confer with officials, diplomats, congressional leaders -- to widen the "community of the concerned."
There is an even more fundamental question about Chappaquiddick, but it is a question rarely asked: What effect has his personal failure had on Kennedy's own character and development since that time? On key elements that relate both to his own personality and to potential presidential quality, he has answered the most fundamental questions raised about his character.
Commitment? For Kennedy, an easy way out of Chappaquiddick would have been retirement to private life.I believe that he stuck to his public post in part because he wanted vindication but in large part, too, because he happens to believe in the public policies he talks about.
Consistency? He has established one of the most coherent and consistently liberal, internationalist records in the Senate. People can disagree with the senator but rarely can they doubt where he stands. This is clear from his roll call votes, whether measured by liberal or conservative monitoring organizations.
Courage? Ted Kennedy displayed a good deal of foolhardiness in his younger days -- plummeting down a perilous ski jump, riding a bucking bronco, and the like. Since Chappaquiddick he has shown a different kind of courage -- confronting antiblack mobs in Boston and, yes, running for the presidency. Six months ago people were worried that he might be shot if he campaigned; did they think that the idea had not crossed his mind, too?
Self-control in crisis? For 18 years Kennedy has been operating in high-pressure political situations. For some weeks now he has been enduring the sting of defeat -- and holding up under it. His Georgetown speech, at a time of extreme fatigue and of disappointment over the Iowa caucus results, showed an extraordinary resilience and stamina, as he recast his political strategy.
The crucial question of Chappaquiddick for Kennedy was whether it would make him or break him as a decent, compassionate, and committed human being. He was not "born again;" but he steadied himself, he endured the obloquy, and he became a far more purposeful, committed public servant.
The human question now challenges his critics more than Kennedy. This campaign has seen an explosion of sanctimonious moralizing about Kennedy -- a McCarthyism not of the right but of the righteous. The scurrilous attacks on Kennedy, like the reckless accusations against McCarthy's victims, have become momentous forces in themselves, transcending specific events, or explanations of them. The original private activities, while not unimportant in themselves, have simply been dwarfed by the grotesque overreaction whipped up by moralizing finger-pointers and political opportunists. Who really cares now whether someone haled before the Inquisition, or before a congressional committee, was actually "heretical" or "subversive" in thought or action? It is the victims we care about now, and their persecutors. Some day, I expect, Kennedy's persecutors will be treated with the same disdain as the vilifiers of the past.
Ironically, the continuing vilification of Kennedy may cause him, in the long run, to seek the presidency not only for public reasons but for personal and human ones -- to vindicate himself by his actual behavior in the White House. But in the short run, the McCarthyism of the righteous has helped disrupt the career of a fine potential leader -- and may well leave the American voter next fall with the most dismal choice of presidential candidates in almost a century.