Together with the rest of the country, I guess, I switched off my adoration of the Kennedy name the moment I learned that little brother Ted had left his date Mary Jo Kopechne to drown at Chappaquidick, while he, drunk as a skunk, clamored for the shore all by his lonesome, to phone the police -- eight hours later.
How long ago was that dreadful episode? I've forgotten. I only know that in my youthful and dismally puritanical self-righteousness, I closed the book on Ted, just as, later, I did on Bill Clinton, for his "sexual obsession," or so they called it then, as if it were an untreatable skin rash, and not the lapse of moral judgment we all know it was. When JFK's moral sins of commission, with Marilyn Monroe and others, were published for all the world to see, including the long-suffering Jackie, I pretty much gave up on all the Kennedys, I thought, for good. You can count on PT-109 for just so long.
As regards Teddy Kennedy, he being eight years older than I was, he was a lot younger than I am now, when he panicked at Chappaquidick. Even in the U.S. Senate, he was still a playboy, a confirmed party animal. He, or, rather, his ruthless father Joe, had enough money to buy or do anything any member of the large family pleased. The boy Teddy must've grown up with a strong sense that his family could buy the corner cop (also likely to be Irish) or the local judge, if any of the family crossed the line. He must've breathed the very atmosphere of privilege and exception. Fitzgerald was surely correct, "The rich are different from you and I." He might've added, The very rich (into which category the Kennedys fit with ease) are very different from you and I.
Would I have behaved any different had I been in Teddy's shoes at Chappaquidick? Oh, really? How could I be so sure?
I've grown up a lot since those days. I hope. In any event, here was this 30-some-year-old kid devastated, as he must have been, by, first, the death in a fiery warplane crash, of his oldest brother Joe, Jr., during the war; then the murders of his two remaining brothers, who'd been elected to public office -- each acting out their father's dream of having a son in the White House.
True, Ted had been tossed out of Harvard for plagiarizing. But there's a long tradition among the rich in this country: noblesse oblige. In short, it amounts to this: your country has been very good to you, and so, in return, you should feel a corresponding moral obligation to serve that country, especially the poor, the dispossessed. The best example I can think of in our time is Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of F.D.R., who devoted a lifetime to serving her country selflessly. (There's a 1935 New Yorker cartoon that depicts two filthy coal miners in a mine, looking toward someone approaching them, "My God," says one to the other, "it's Eleanor Roosevelt!" Now, that's noblesse oblige with a vengeance.)
Ginny said recently, "Mary Jo Kopechne was the best thing that ever happened to Ted Kennedy." I was shocked to hear her say that, but I had to admit I thought so, too.
I think Chappaquidick woke up Ted Kennedy. He must've suddenly realized how badly he'd let down his father and brothers. He must've sworn off, then and there, sexually irresponsible behavior. He must've, I think, pledged to support the underdog, in the long old tradition of F.D.R., those who most likely voted him into office in the first place.
If ever a sinner deserved to be forgiven, I think Ted Kennedy was the man.