In the week or so since Ted Kennedy died, I’ve been thinking about how we choose our presidents. Unlike the early 60’s, when Kennedy’s brother Jack was elected, we are now inundated with personal information about our presidents and presidential candidates.
Some of this information has been disqualifying – Gary Hart’s relationship with Donna Rice, for example, or Newt Gingrich’s adulterous relationship during the Monica Lewinsky impeachment episode. But should it be? Would it be better for the country to focus less on a candidate’s private life and more on his or her public life?
In the case of Ted Kennedy, that’s the question I’ve been wrestling with ever since he got sick. There are an awful lot of negatives on the personal side of the ledger, from cheating at Harvard to partying with William Kennedy Smith. But the most awful Kennedy mistake of all is Chappaquiddick.
Chappaquiddick is inexcusable. When you visit the site, you see exactly what happened that night. Teddy left a party alone with Mary Jo Kopechne. She left her purse and keys at the party. He dismissed his driver, who was also at the party. The Senator drove her down a long dirt road that was clearly not the road to the Chappaquiddick Ferry, as he claimed. He drove too fast, he missed the turn to the tiny Dike’s Bridge, and drove his car into the water. Then he left the scene with Kopechne still trapped in the submerged car. He spoke with numerous people after the accident, but did not report it to police until the next day, after her body had already been discovered. Drinking, an extramarital relationship, a death, leaving the scene of the crime… this cannot be ignored.
On the public side, Kennedy showed the strength and moral clarity that was so clearly missing in the Kopechne death. Senator Kennedy had a clear and discreet vision of what our country could be. In his almost 50 years in the senate, he was extremely effective, writing and supporting bills that expanded American’s civil rights, voting rights, rights in the workplace, access to healthcare and education. His work for seniors, immigrants, students, the poor and disenfranchised, personified the challenge he himself quoted at his brother Robert’s funeral: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not." Even while in the political wilderness, during the Reagan and the two Bush administrations, Kennedy set the legislative agenda, finding common cause with Republican colleagues despite the poisonous atmosphere of the last few decades.
Kennedy was a leader, a consensus builder and a uniquely effective politician. Is the country a better place because Ted Kennedy was never president?
In this, what Sarah Palin calls the age of ‘gotcha journalism,’ the personal trumps the professional. But we need to find a balance between the two.
This is not to say that we should go back to the days of Joseph Alsop and JFK, when a politician’s personal scandals were actively concealed by the press corp. We need to know when a public figure behaves like John Edwards, or Mark Foley, or Mark Sanford… or Ted Kennedy. But voters should balance that information with a candidate’s public accomplishments.
Richard Nixon was faithful to his wife. Mitt Romney is clean as an Eagle Scout. But do we want our choices limited to figures like these, with no place for a Kennedy, or a Clinton, or even a Gingrich?
Which… as a New York voter… makes me wonder if maybe it’s time to give Eliot Spitzer another look.
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