September 3rd, 2009
12:36 PM ET

Teddy, we knew you too well

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Ken Olshansky
AC360° Contributor

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.

Filed under: Ken Olshansky • Sen. Ted Kennedy
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Marianne from Beaverton OR

    Is there a living soul who is spotless? I think not. There are many thing's Ted Kennedy will have to answer to his God for. Then there are many thing's we all will have to answer to our God for. Bottom line he could have played on his boat all day and lived in La La Land. Giving not a second glance or thought for the working poor, or the basic needs, and human rights of others. I am thankful for the good works he did in his life time. I am sadden by those who only want to remember the not so good things. The not so good things that are now between he and his God.

    September 3, 2009 at 6:20 pm |
  2. Annie Kate

    Ted Kennedy achieved a tremendous amount of "change" in the 50 years he was in the Senate. Chappaquiddick was terrible and inexcusable but should not be used to define the whole man, which so many Kennedy haters try to do.

    I think we place too great of a burden on very capable people who would work in public service like Ted Kennedy did when we have to know every little thing they have done. I'm not interested in who they are sleeping with; I'm not interested in whether they have children out of wedlock or are being sued for child support for a child born of an affair. That is their business – it is not mine. Because of the intense scrutiny that candidates are given these days I'm surprised that any gifted person who would make an exemplary Senator or Congressman even runs. If we continue in this vein, I fear that we may end up with a Congress of very mediocre representatives who have no long term vision for the country or its citizens.

    September 3, 2009 at 6:14 pm |
  3. shah nawaz

    nobody is perfect in this world. one should appreciate the good public work done by a person rather than his flaws in his personal life.
    Ted was such a person.

    Good article,every young person aught to take some positive lesson from this.

    September 3, 2009 at 6:13 pm |
  4. Vivien Wolsk, Ph.D., NYC

    Sen. Ted Kennedy undoubedtly gave great service to all of us as Americans with his work in the Senate and his championing of the underserved. It seems poignant that had be been one of those poor underserved people instead of the privileged man he was, he might have wasted years in prison for his involvement in the Chappaquiddick tragedy. Instead he was given the opportunity to serve his country and redeem himself through his good works.

    Perhaps there is a good lesson in this. Perhaps other young men and women who commit thoughtless, even harmful acts out of immaturity, bad judgement and other pressing circumstances could be given the same chance at redemption through required public service instead of serving wasted, useless (and financially costly) time in prison.

    September 3, 2009 at 4:14 pm |
  5. gretchen

    Was Ted Kennedy such a lion for civil rights before Chappaquiddick? Or just after? If the latter, it would appear his guilt drove him to compensate for his huge failure (moral, etc.).

    September 3, 2009 at 3:38 pm |
  6. JC- Los Angeles

    With all due respect, there should be no "buts" attached to Ted Kennedy.

    To suggest that "on the public side, Kennedy showed the strength and moral clarity" is absurd beyond belief.

    How is driving off a "public" bridge with a "public" citizen not part of one's "public" side.

    Our nation has been run into the ground by the connected few who continually make up the sector of career politicians, career corporate executives and career leadership teams.

    Now that Senator Kennedy has passed, hopefully his seat can be occupied by someone self made who abides by all "public" laws.

    September 3, 2009 at 3:13 pm |
  7. Nichole

    Sometimes it's hard to accept that people in powerful position are flawed. But I believe that comes from our thinking and the lack of acceptance that we ourselves are flawed.

    We often want perfection from these people but it is their flaws that make them human and make it possible for them to understand the good of the people.

    Great post. This is indeed something we need to look at closer. The true measure of the man or woman.

    September 3, 2009 at 2:15 pm |
  8. kim

    This was the basis of my disertation and for the a college class I devolped. The media needs to find a medium of coverage; not the sensationalism.Then again some people are great politicans but not such great people. I believe Ted was both a good person and one of the best politicans of all time. I hope that with his death; the dreams he and his brothers had for this country have not died with him.

    September 3, 2009 at 2:00 pm |