The ghost at Chappaquiddick

T1Z6Z1P_largeI’ve wanted to look at some of the coverage of the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy but haven’t quite been sure what to say of the it. From my perspective as a Capitol Hill reporter, he was a blast to cover — a fascinating man to watch in action either at work or play. And not that I would “cover” him at worship but I even saw him once at St. Joseph’s — the Senate-side Catholic Church that I have visited with friends.

But, you know, sometimes I don’t understand why the media is so hagiographic when politicians, actors, musicians and sports heroes die. And it’s particularly confusing when the hagiography is for a man with a past as colorful as Kennedy’s. I feel sympathy for the man’s family and friends and don’t want the media to speak ill of him but neither do I want them to sugarcoat the bad stuff.

I thought it might be interesting to look at how media outlets have handled some of the more lurid details. Do you ignore them or confront them head on? How do you be respectful and accurate?

Editor & Publisher actually went through each major paper’s obituary to see in which paragraph Chappaquiddick was mentioned. The results were somewhat surprising. The more liberal Boston Globe mentioned it much earlier than the more right-leaning Boston Herald, for instance.

One remembrance in the Boston Globe, by Joan Vennochi, deserved a mention here at GetReligion. Here’s how she handled Kennedy’s past indiscretions and troubles. It begins powerfully:

IN DEATH, Ted Kennedy will be idealized, his accomplishments lionized, his weaknesses glossed over.

If it can happen to Michael Jackson, a mere king of pop, it will surely happen to the last son of Camelot. But the truth about Kennedy is where it is with most of us: somewhere in the middle. Somewhere between the great liberal icon and the not-so-great senator who walked away at Chappaquiddick was a human being, trying his best, but sometimes falling short.

Like all figures in history – and like those in the Bible, for that matter – Kennedy came with flaws. Moses had a temper. Peter betrayed Jesus. Kennedy had Chappaquiddick, a moment of tremendous moral collapse.

It’s not the comparison of Kennedy to Moses or St. Peter so much as what she says about Peter. It was Judas who betrayed Jesus, not Peter. Peter denied Christ three times, of course. It’s an odd mistake but it also forces some theological questions — about the severity of sins, contrition and forgiveness. It’s that contrition issue that has always dogged Kennedy.

Terry already highlighted some of the better stories that explain the different between the carousing Teddy and the one who wanted to die a better man.

But, again, what about contrition? As I’m writing this, my husband and I are listening to a tape of The Diane Rehm Show — a very popular public radio show here in DC. There is a panel of journalists, academics and pollsters speaking quite well of Kennedy. One of them is Ed Klein, former foreign editor of Newsweek and editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine. And he just said that Ted Kennedy liked to joke about Chappaquiddick:

I don’t know if you know this or not, but one of his favorite topics of humor was indeed Chappaquiddick itself. And he would ask people, “have you heard any new jokes about Chappaquiddick?” That is just the most amazing thing. It’s not that he didn’t feel remorse about the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, but that he still always saw the other side of everything and the ridiculous side of things, too.

So how do reporters write up Chappaquiddick?

One of the most thoughtful — and kind — pieces of analysis I read about just that came from AOL’s Politics Daily site and was penned by senior Washington correspondent Carl Cannon — the former DC bureau chief for Reader’s Digest, White House reporter for National Journal and past president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. I’ve always known he’s a great political reporter but I found his treatment of the religion angle here to be well done. First he sets the scene by briefly detailing what happened at Chappaquiddick:

The idea that Edward M. Kennedy could be a viable national politician — let alone a much-admired and lionized political figure — has convinced millions of everyday citizens and succeeding generations of conservative activists that among the elites of academia, politics, and the media two standards of behavior exist: One for liberal Democrats and another for conservative Republicans. Along with sweeping changes in immigration law, soaring oratory, and strengthening the nation’s social safety net, this reservoir of class resentment is also part of Kennedy’s legacy.

Liberals in the media pretend not to see this. Or rather, they blame those who feel aggrieved. This very morning, my old friend James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly employed the usual euphemisms about Kennedy’s behavior in his post — and then launched a preemptive strike against anyone who might view Teddy’s life with gimlet eyes. “A flawed man, who started unimpressively in life — the college problems, the silver-spoon boy senator, everything involved with Chappaquiddick — but redeemed himself, in the eyes of all but the committed haters, with his bravery and perseverance and commitment to the long haul,” Fallows wrote.

I like Jim Fallows, and stand in awe of Kennedy’s effectiveness as a politician myself. But hold on a minute: The “college problems” were serial cheating. The “silver-spoon” stuff, I suppose refers to, among other things, the speeding and reckless driving that ominously foreshadowed Chappaquiddick. And that phrase “redeeming himself in the eyes of all but the committed haters,” well, the problem with that is that to many people, redemption implies that a sinner has come clean.

Certain theological questions present themselves here, ones that are well above, as our president memorably said, the “pay grade” of most political writers. One of them is whether one can completely atone for a sin that is not truthfully confessed. Kennedy did say, in a wrenching 1976 interview with the Boston Globe, that his behavior that night was “irrational and indefensible and inexcusable and inexplicable.”

And that’s just the beginning. The piece includes much more detail about the night that Kopechne lost her life. It’s not disputed and it’s not pretty and it is just tragic and mind-boggling no matter how you look at it. It doesn’t answer the contrition issue but it raises it and acknowledges its legitimacy.

But it goes on. It goes on to explain the other Teddy — the generous, charming, interesting and gregarious one that seemingly everyone who knew him just loved. Democrats loved him as a liberal leader and Republicans had trouble speaking ill of him after they got to know him. Reporters, lobbyists and everyone whose paths crossed Kennedy’s would probably say the same thing.

I don’t really know how to handle it. What do you think? What is the proper way to treat this issue? Michael Paulson at the Boston Globe has a great look at how people viewed Kennedy’s Catholicism — both when it came to liberal causes and when it came to abortion — but he doesn’t get into the Kopechne incident. He let’s activists on both sides speak and gets some clarifying quotes from Catholic officials. It’s a good model to follow.

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  • Nicholas

    Certain theological questions present themselves here, ones that are well above, as our president memorably said, the “pay grade” of most political writers. One of them is whether one can completely atone for a sin that is not truthfully confessed.

    How does anyone – other than his confessor – know whether he did or didn’t confess and atone? …

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    It seems to me that the last place where the virtue of civility reigns in American society is in speaking of the dead. I have personally been glad to see the graciousness with which many of his political opponents, such as former Sen. Rick Santorum, spoke of Senator Kennedy. My personal view is that it’s up to God to judge him now. Journalistic reports should make mention of his obvious flaws, but I see no need to dwell on them at length.
    However, if we could move this analysis back to a time when Kennedy was alive and well and running for office, it always puzzled me that no one explored connections between his vigorous support for abortion rights and the notoriously carousing behavior of his younger years. He was not the only senator where this was the case — Bob Packwood comes to mind. There are many reasons why people may support abortion rights, and one of them is that if you are going to have sex with large numbers of women, you will be highly motivated to be rid of the babies that may inconveniently result from this. It becomes a matter of self-interest, not some noble stand for the rights of women. As I’ve looked at some of the TV reports — most of them excellent — that mention his support of abortion and also discuss his so-called womanizing, I find it interesting that no connection is every drawn between them.

  • Nicholas

    @ Anne – perhaps no connection is drawn between Kennedy’s advocacy for legal abortion and his “womanizing” because there isn’t one to be made.

    Safe (as opposed to back-alley) abortion has always been an option for the wealthy, even in the 1950s. He could easily have afforded to pay for such services if he desired. Support for public access to abortion probably had little or nothing to do with his alleged “womanizing”. …

  • Mel Springer

    It is up to God to judge Ted Kennedy’s soul, but that does not relieve our society of its responsibility to judge his actions. Yes, perhaps, Senator Kennedy confessed his sins, owned responsibility for them, repented and became a forgiven soul, maybe even a changed man. We may entertain that possibility (maybe it’s probable). As a PUBLIC SERVANT, a Senator in the United States Senate, however, Kennedy’s responsibility extended beyond a private confession and atonement. He OWED us (his public and constituents) an admission, an explanation, an apology and a request for forgiveness. Since I am unaware that he ever did that, I have no basis to forgive Kennedy’s actions or failures to act that contributed to Mary Jo Kopechne’s 1969 death in Chappaquiddick. May God forgive him. MEL SPRINGER, TARPON SPRINGS, FL

  • CarlH

    The key to the blind spot about the “double standard” applied between flawed liberals and flawed conservatives for “journalists” of James Fallows’ ilk (I can’t quickly think of a similarly apt, but less acerbic descriptive, unfortunately), I think, is that fact that for them “redemption,” much like their view of “salvation” (via some secular Utopia), comes from politics and government rather than religion or even a secular personal transformation. Being on the “correct” (their own) side of the progressive political battles of the day trumps everything. Conservatives, by very definition for these people, are not on the “correct” side and therefore are not worthy of any acknowledgment of “redemption.”

  • Dredpiraterobts

    There’s a reason we call them “Accidents.”

    They happen, sometimes people die, and sometimes people live. I have found that when a person dies in an accident there is invariably someone who will say something along the lines of “God has a plan” usually a person of the cloth will say “God has called her home” or words to this effect.

    I am often left to wonder why the self same people who will fervently believe that God is involved in every day events also believe that God has zero input in a woman’s decision not to carry a baby to term. I am, in this case left to wonder why the very same people who insist that God has a plan, refuse to rest assured that Mary Joe’s death was timely by God’s schedule. Why the double standard?

    As to the question of whether there is a “Fair balance” to the coverage of Rightist v. Leftist indiscretions, I’d suggest this: Take into account the Doppler Effect of Opinions. The DEO accounts for the fact that opinions that are directed at you (or your heroes) is very shrill, when at the same time the ones that are going away from you (i.e. one’s directed at “the other side”) seem very reasoned and calm. Just like when the siren is coming at you and when it is traveling away from you.

    I won’t try to define what “your side” thinks, please don’t try to define what “my side” thinks. It is basic human nature for every ego to think that all others are the same itself (it’s like that sneaking knowledge that they all really speak English and if I just speak it slowly and loudly, they’ll show that they understand). What you are doing above is projecting your ego’s rationale onto people that you don’t understand.

    This having been said, the “double standard” has (from a liberal’s pov) has much more to do with the “Dog Bites Man” headline. The Right has aligned and defined itself by its supposed “Moral Majority”, “Family Values” iconography and when a Newt Gingrich is making political hay of infidelity while at the same time having another extra marital affair its hypocrisy makes it more interesting than if a known dog bites another mailgirl (so to speak).

  • Dredpiraterobts

    “Man Bites Dog”, sorry.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I don’t think the issue with Chappaquiddick is the accident itself. I mean, like you note, people get in drunk driving accidents all the time.

    I think the issue is what happened in the 9 hours following that accident and how it’s been handled by the MSM ever since.

  • CarlH

    In support of my speculations above, see the following paean to Sen. Kennedy by author Joyce Carol Oates in the Guardian [UK] yesterday:

    Kennedy’s redemption from the depths

    This paradox lies at the heart of so much of public life: individuals of dubious character and cruel deeds may redeem themselves in selfless actions. Fidelity to a personal code of morality would seem to fade in significance as the public sphere, like an enormous sun, blinds us to all else.

  • Susan

    The Kennedy legend-creating machine continues. Most of what is known of Ted Kennedy’s personal history is unattractive to say the least. He was known for personal charm … mostly exhibited to his peers but not so much to more vulnerable people (see Michael Kelly’s article in GQ entitled “A Sober Look at Ted Kennedy”). He is mourned by a certain generation; he is the end of the Kennedy dynasty. He represents a certain set of political beliefs. The more the TV media cover this death, the more their ratings have gone down. It will be interesting to see if the public tunes into the funeral Mass and how the funeral Mass is more broadly interpreted by the media. (I assume a continuing media “beatification.”)

  • http://www.perperuaofcarthage.blogspot.com Perpetua

    I think “Chappaquiddick” itself is a euphemism for “the death of Mary Jo Kopechne”. The articles that use it are allowing the substitution of a geographic location for the name of the human being who unnecessarily drowned due to Kennedy’s selfish behavior. I say selfish because it appears that, rather than doing everything he could to save her, he ran from the accident in an attempt to cover up his intended adultery.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    We’ve been pretty lax about comment control on these Kennedy posts but I went ahead and deleted the last couple of comments for being a bit too far afield or engaging in slander, etc.

    For future comments, stay focused on journalism.



  • Dan Crawford

    Why didn’t you delete a number of the 12 that remain – it seems to me they also have gone “a bit afar and engaging in slander”. Comments by CarlH and 9-12 would qualify.

  • Dredpiraterobts

    “Focused on journalism” Oh! I’m sorry, I thought the question here was religion.

    The focus of journalism in this country is the “cult of celebrity.” Nobody cares if a little black girl in Newark is found dead, but let some little rich white girl in Bolder, Colorado be found dead and it’s headline news for a decade!

    It is the worship of Mammon! The worship of money and the power it brings and the fame that comes with it. It is a sin if there is such a thing as sin.

    Why is Mary Jo’s unfortunate death “Important?” Because she died in the car of someone rich and famous. That’s IT, nothing more. It makes it no less of what it is that the “journalistic slant” is Pro Kennedy or Anti Kennedy, they boith start from the same presumption, that there is something special about “The” Kennedys.

    If the editors of this blog can’t see that this incident exposes the irrationality of idolitry (positive and negative, “positive” meaning, there are certainly those who are, journalistically idolicized and glorified for their “ministerial works,” of whom God would say, again, “it should not be”) then I have to conclude that they have not given themselves to deep thought about religion. Perhaps much thought, but not so deep that they have pierced its outer protective layer.

  • http://www.lydiaevans.net Lydia Evans


    You write that accidents “happen, sometimes people die, and sometimes people live,” emphasizing an attribution of God’s providence to these events. You state that you are “left to wonder why the very same people who insist that God has a plan, refuse to rest assured that Mary Joe’s death was timely by God’s schedule.”

    For me, the accident at the Dike bridge on Chappy is not as much the issue as Senator Kennedy’s response as he left the scene, as he considered the best course of action in the ensuing twelve hours.

  • Dredpiraterobts

    Well Lydia all I can say is that I’m in awe of persons that are able to know God’s Plans to such a degree that they are able to know where and when those plans are along God’s “story arc.”

    Meanwhile, you are not the first to say “But it’s about what he did after the accident that matters” and then turn a blind eye to what the man did for some 40 YEARS after the accident.

    It’s a very convenient view of chronology that some people have.

    But what the editors here want is apparently a discussion of the “journalistic focus,” and to that end I will try to be a pleasant guest and center my remarks there.

    There has never ever been a “journalist” that reported on this event without bringing into question TK’s response and what it meant. To me, there has always been the unwritten myth that what TK wanted to do was to disappear Mary Jo completely a’la dime store pulp novels. Certainly, if ever there was a family of means to engage in such activities, the Kennedys were (at least once) one.

    Certainly, covering up crimes is and was the primary use of lawyers on retention. And yet, what was the upshot of the Kennedy response? They pulled out the car and they gave Mary Jo a Christian burial. Teddy was publicly scorned and humiliated from the left and from the right. He went on to do a lot of good and a lot of bad for this nation (IMHO).

    So where should Mary Jo fit into Teddy’s eulogy? “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones;” There is plenty of time to pick through the bones of Teddy’s evils, but even pagan Rome (or at least the one depicted in Shakespearean England) would agree that it is unseemly to dwell on them whilst the body is still warm.

    One last point, reporting on the reports (focusing on the journalism) is the sort of non-journalistic “journalism” that has allowed the corporate run media to have a seemingly endless supply of 24 hour “news” channels that seem to say absolutely nothing of any real import.

  • Dredpiraterobts

    Just a followup to “a’la dime store pulp novels” let’s not forget that there are people who still believe that Vince Foster was killed by Hillary Clinton in the White House and then planted at Arlington Cemetary.

    People want to believe that the world really is a Perry Mason (Law & Order) episode where the object is to predict what “the twist” will be.