Romanticising the late Ted Kennedy

A great man, with a dark past

Here in the New Statesman offices, we are in the midst of drafting a leader that pays tribute to the "Lion of the Senate", Senator Ted Kennedy, who has died following a battle with a brain tumour at the age of 77.

Kennedy was undoubtedly a great man who, in the word of the BBC online obituary, "possessed the full mixture of the virtues, and the vices, that defined America's most famous political dynasty".

It is the "vices" that are often underplayed or even conveniently ignored when a great man or great politician (especially a Kennedy) passes away. But, to be fair, the BBC obit does refer to the infamous "Chappaquiddick incident" in some detail:

On 18 July 1969, he was at a party on the small Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick with a group, including six women known as the boiler room girls, who had worked on his brother Robert's presidential campaign.

Kennedy left the party, supposedly to drive his brother's former secretary, Mary Jo Kopechne, to catch the last ferry back to the mainland but, instead, the car turned on to a side road and crashed off a bridge into a tidal creek.

Kennedy pulled himself from the upturned car and, swimming across a narrow creek, returned to his hotel without reporting the accident.

It was the following morning before local fishermen found the sunken car and discovered the body of Mary Jo Kopechne still inside.

Evidence given at the subsequent inquest suggested that she had probably remained alive in an air pocket for several hours and might well have been saved had the alarm been raised at the time.

Think about that for a moment. This great man, who was one of only 23 senators to oppose the Iraq war, so bravely and presciently, a key figure in helping Barack Obama win the 2008 Democratic nomination for the presidency and at the forefront of the ongoing progressive campaign for health-care reform in the United States, nonetheless was responsible for the wholly avoidable death of a 28-year-old woman. He served no jailtime, continued to be re-elected to his Senate seat until his death, and will now be lionised as a political saint across the liberal commentariat.

Would we be so forgiving, I wonder, were he not a Kennedy?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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