Over the past week the life of Edward Kennedy has been so scrupulously (and lovingly) scrubbed clean by such a swarm of journalists and memorialists, that you would think that the senator had commissioned his own posthumous hagiography. That certainly would not be beyond the reach of the Kennedy clan, who, for over three generations of Kennedy hi-jinks, became renown for their ability to manipulate public sentiment in any major event involving a Kennedy.
But for once that famous publicity machine has some substance to commemorate. Whereas the presidential record of John F. Kennedy was light on substantial accomplishment and the presidential candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy, little more than a memory of unfulfilled promise, the senatorial career of Edward M. Kennedy presents a record of unparalleled labor and perseverance. Over 47 years Kennedy had a hand in over 400 pieces of legislation, deeply affecting the trajectory of health care, immigration, education and electoral reform in this country. His willingness to compromise and his extraordinarily well honed persuasive skills, lent him a reverence from both sides of the political divide that few Senators may ever be able to match.
Well that’s the good part. There was, of course, another “ Ted” Kennedy – one for whom drunkenness, womanizing, carousing and other forms of bad behavior, made him a lightning rod for press attention and led to the collapse of his presidential ambitions. The 1969 Chappaquiddick accident, in which Kennedy departed the scene leaving his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne to drown, permanently scarred the public perception of Kennedy as a man of character, leading to the calculation that he might fail the nation in a crisis. His woeful performance in 1980, when he challenged sitting president Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and failed to adequately articulate why he should be the party’s nominee, only served to fuse the impression that Kennedy was not up to the task of national leadership.
That impression was probably right on. Personal crisis and the way a man responds to it are indeed telling indicators of character. There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that Kennedy drove off on that summer’s night in 1969 for a tryst with the 28- year-old Kopechne and it was the obviousness of this intent and his fear of it being discovered, that ultimately resulted in his failure to report the incident to police for ten hours following the plunge from the bridge. Similarly, his involvement in his nephew William Smith’s indictment for rape in 1993, after he roused his son and Smith for a late night drinking bout at a nearby Cape Cod tavern, was another example of irresponsibility that reinforced public understanding of Kennedy as an overgrown teenager whose private life was a sloven mess.
That impression was then reinforced in the 1990s with the publication of The Senator: My Ten Years with Ted Kennedy, by Richard Burke,which offers a scathing expose of Kennedy’s private life, written by a former aide who watched Kennedy’s descent into debauchery, even while he ascended the political ladder as an accomplished legislator. That book documents drug abuse, excessive alcoholic consumption and sexual escapades which make his father’s and his three brothers’ sexual antics seem somewhat tame.
Indeed, the Janus-faced persona of devoted public servant coupled with uninhibited libertine appears as a distinctly Kennedy generational trait passed successively down the family tree. Both Kennedy grandfathers were renown carousers and womanizers – the ebullient former mayor of Boston, John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald and the saloon owning Partrick Kennedy. Kennedy’s father, Joseph P., was the archetypal early 20th century “swinger,” completely faithless to his devoutly religious wife (despite siring nine children with her) and running through a series of mistresses for 50 years, which included the actress Gloria Swanson who at one time lived at the Kennedy Hyannisport compound in a virtual ménage-a-trois with Rose. Elder brother Joe, who died at 29 in the Second World War ,was consumed by an adulterous affair at the time of his death. John F. Kennedy transformed the White House, posthumous accounts have revealed, into a virtual bordello, with hundreds of young women, among them numerous prostitutes, starlets and movie stars invited (some say, “commanded”) to share the favors of the presidential bedroom. Even the formerly pristine reputation of Bobby Kennedy (father of eleven) has been shredded by the knowledge that he had affairs with numerous women, including Marilyn Monroe, whom he allegedly visited shortly before her suicide in 1962.
Psycho-therapists and Kennedy boosters might contend that Ted’s raucous behavior was both predictable and perhaps even excusable given the weight of expectation which rested on his shoulders. And it might well be true that the surviving Kennedy possessed demons neither he, nor anybody, could readily exorcise, given the high toll of family tragedies with which he had to contend.
But the purpose of dredging up the history of this century-long family bacchanalia is not to explore the Kennedy family’s personal neurosis as much as it is to identify the kind of men and women who deserve to lead us. For the Kennedys, the conquest of women was the preamble to the conquest of men and they heartily endorsed an ethos in which faithlessness, adultery and personal deception could and should be characteristic tools of any successful politician. Success did, of course, follow the Kennedys, but it was won at an enormous cost to our own political culture. Succeeding presidencies read from the Kennedy handbook the rule that means justify ends. Hence, Lyndon Johnson’s mendacity to Congress over Vietnam, Richard Nixon’s farrago of lies concerning Watergate and Bill Clinton’s evasions and subterfuges regarding the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Since that latter event we have been bombarded by our media with the message that the private life and personal morals of our leaders should have nothing to do with our evaluation of them as our political representatives. The idea that personal conduct has nothing to do with political reputation has time and again been reinforced in recent years, as witnessed in the re-election of exposed serial adulterer Antony Villagairosa as mayor of Los Angeles, the seemingly unblemished career of Barney Frank ( implicated in a male prostitution ring) and the continuing rehabilitation of disgraced former New York governor, Elliot Spitzer.
How, one wonders, would men such as George Washington, John Adams and James Madison looked upon the antics of the Kennedy brothers and the current public obliviousness to moral laxity? Not kindly. It is certain they had in mind different models of leaders, men who believed that their public lives would, by necessity, reflect their moral purpose of their private lives.
Shame is a quality which is fast vanishing from our political culture. We are losing touch with the appreciation of goodness, discipline and probity which characterized the early leaders of this republic. Our willingness to tolerate aberrant behavior from our leaders or hold them accountable for it, will not lead to the strengthening of our democracy but to its inexorable weakening. For that the Kennedy brothers must take their share of responsibility and recognize it as one of the more significant and dire legacies of their fabled reign in Camelot.