Lindy McDowell: How Ted Kennedy lived in the shadow of Mary Jo’s death
The obituaries tell us that the real legacy of the late Senator Ted Kennedy who died this week was that he helped broker the Northern Ireland peace process. (Didn’t everyone? Just about any politician who has ever set foot in this place has at some point been credited with ‘brokering the peace.’)
In fairness he did get an honorary knighthood from the Queen for his contribution. A knighthood which, interestingly enough, this avowed Irish nationalist was happy to accept
But then Ted Kennedy never really was entirely predictable. The one-time cheerleader for Sinn Fein gradually came to assume a more critical stance where that party was concerned — in particular after the murder of Robert McCartney.
He was no big friend of unionists — but his antagonism towards them did seem to mellow with the years to the point where DUP leader Peter Robinson could pay tribute to him at the end. There was a time when that would have been unthinkable .
Other aspects of his legacy — the many pieces of legislation that he helped steer on to the statute book in the US; his battle to transform the American health care system; and his contribution as ‘kingmaker’ boosting the elections of Clinton and Obama.
But one word like a dark cloud will forever hang over the name of the man they flatteringly called the Lion of the Senate.
In the aftermath of Kennedy’s death this week American television channels have been reviewing his long political career. And over and over again the same clip has been flickering on to screens
A sombre Kennedy speaking on national television way back in July 1969.
“I regard as indefensible the fact that I did not report the accident to the police immediately.”
Indefensible was one word for it. What Kennedy had done was to abandon to a lingering and horrific death a young woman whose life could almost certainly have been saved.
Mary Jo Kopechne was in his car when it plunged into the river near Chappaquiddick Island. While Kennedy managed to swim free, she was trapped inside. Shamefully, inexplicably, Kennedy did not raise the alarm. He waited until the next day before contacting the cops.
Mary Jo is believed to have survived for some time in an air bubble. She could have been saved
But Kennedy was more concerned about saving his own reputation. For hours he did nothing. What must have gone through his mind during that time? What sort of man is capable of such killer callousness? Kennedy in the end survived — not just literally, but politically. Had he not been a Kennedy would he have got away with it? He was given a mere suspended jail sentence for his role in the death of the young woman.
And while the scandal may well have scuppered his chances of making it to the White House, his political career continued nonetheless. America was willing to forgive the brother of assassinated JFK and RFK. But as this week’s obituaries have shown, it didn’t ever forget. Among callers to one US phone-in show was the pilot who flew him back to be questioned by the police after Chappaquiddick.
The pilot recalled that what struck him most about Kennedy was his absolute arrogance.
That pampered arrogance and Kennedy’s contempt for women remained in evidence down through the years.
He was a man used to getting what he wanted — a man prepared to put his own ambitions before all else. Even the life of another human being.Many of the tributes paid this week have talked in affectionate terms about how, yes, he was flawed — but even so ...
The fact was though, that Kennedy’s was a pretty fatal flaw. Especially from the perspective of the trusting young woman in the car. Chappaquiddick defined Edward Kennedy. Nothing that followed, nothing that he did ever made it right.