The Legacy of Ted Kennedy

August 26th, 2009

The death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy is a sad event.  It should make us all reflect on the reality that no matter how far we go in life, no matter what we may accomplish, in the end we all face the same fate.

There can be no doubt that Ted Kennedy was a giant of the Senate, whether you agree or disagree with his politics.  He worked harder than most and achieved more than most.  Beyond that, he was a true gentleman who never failed to consider the feelings of others.  The stories of his personal kindnesses are legion.

Like any other man, he had flaws.  The elephant in the room was always Chappaquiddick, the single event that likely kept him from being president and certainly kept him out of the Senate Democratic leadership.  It never went away, and it never should have.  He left a young woman alone in a submerged car, possibly still alive and struggling to survive while he ran away to preserve himself and his career.  It was nothing less than shameful and cowardly.

A mere mortal probably would have been charged under Massachusetts law with manslaughter, perjury, or driving to endanger — or all of those offenses — and probably would have been convicted and spent time in prison.  Because he was a Kennedy, the last surviving of the most noble of the clan, he received special treatment. 

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court got involved in the handling of his case, ordering that the inquest be closed to the public.  The judge at the inquest found probable cause that Kennedy had committed a crime and could have issued a warrant for his arrest but didn’t.  The district attorney declined to prosecute him for manslaughter.  A grand jury, which was not permitted to see relevant evidence including the inquest judge’s findings, did not issue an indictment. 

The family of the victim had been paid off and didn’t pursue legal action.  There was no autopsy, but when it was found that there had been blood in her mouth and on her clothes, which was inconsistent with the initial finding of accidental drowning, the family blocked the authorities from exhuming her body to perform an autopsy.

Kennedy pled guilty to one charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury.  After his lawyer and the prosecutor agreed that Kennedy should receive probation because of his age, character, and prior reputation, the judge sentenced him to the mandatory two-months incarceration and suspended the sentence.

Kennedy then made a carefully crafted speech, written with the assistance of such luminaries as Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger, and Ted Sorensen.  The speech saved him, and he went on to become the Lion of the Senate. 

Whatever his other accomplishments, an enduring part of his legacy will be the fact that he walked away from a crime that should have resulted in prison time and the destruction of his career, proving that there are two kinds of justice in America, one for the political nobility and one for the rest of the people.

As we take time to remember Senator Ted Kennedy and his contributions to America, let’s also remember Mary Jo Kopechne, a bright young woman with a future of her own.  What would she have accomplished professionally?  What would her personal life have been like?  How many children and grandchildren would she have had, and what would they have been like?  The mistake of her young life was to have flown too close to the Kennedy flame, and she paid dearly for it.   

Chappaquiddick: No Profile in Kennedy Courage by Susan Donaldson James, ABC News, provides a good review of the Chappaquiddick incident.  More details can be found at Wikipedia.


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6 Responses to “The Legacy of Ted Kennedy”



  1. Harvey |

    Tom,

    Well and thoughtfully said.

    Everyone with even the slightest Conservative bent disagreed with Kennedy’s politics, but it has to be said that he, like Obama (at least in my opinion), was not a phony. Ted Kennedy truly believed (as Obama does) that the people of the United States need government involvement in every aspect of their lives and they both were committed to make that happen.

    Chris Matthews from MSNBC today called Barack Obama the “Last Brother” — meaning the last Kennedy Brother, and there is probably more truth than bloviation to that statement.


  2. rjjrdq |

    Your piece reflects my sentiments as well. Ted Kennedy, like all of us had many flaws. It is not a question as to whether he was a good man or bad, but to what degree he was of both.


  3. Tom |

    I agree that we’re all flawed, just as Ted Kennedy was flawed. But even as his accomplishments exceeded anything most of us will ever achieve, his flaws were worse than most of us could ever get away with.

    Like the Founders, I dislike and distrust inherited power and privilege. It spawns people like Kennedy, who can walk away from a serious crime with little more than a slap on the wrist while the rest of us would have served time in prison with our careers and our lives left in tatters.


  4. doris |

    It also spawns men like J.F.K., not always a bad thing to be born powerful and priviledged. Most people would allow themselves to be protected from serious criminal punishment if they could. Hopefully, we wouldn’t leave the scene even if we are drunk and not thinking clearly. Not a good excuse.


  5. Brian |

    Doris, I think JFK was largely a man of integrity, but that is not the only element in the making of a good chief executive. He was too young and too naive to have been where he was when he was. Tom can give you a better synopsis of the situation in Turkey that led to the situation Cuba than I can, but suffice it to say that if JFK had been a better Commander in Chief, the Cuban missile crisis might never have happened.

    Fidel Castro is a monster, no error, but how different might things in the last 40 years have been if there had been no blockade and no Bay of Pigs?


  6. doris |

    I know about these things, I still think him a great man and leader, albeit a few mistakes and a tad promiscuous.


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