Chappaquiddick was a darker tome than Dallas. Dallas told the end of Camelot, Johnny-we-hardly-knew-ye, a profile in courage borne on a caisson from the Capitol. Chappaquiddick created the bloated, made-for-National-Enquirer story about the end of the great American political dynasty. Each of the narratives was in its own way only a parable, a snapshot, the 20th century equivalent of a 170 character Tweet.
President Kennedy spurred us to go to the moon, but he left his successors with an unwinnable war and the White House sheets with a faint whiff of sex. His brother swam ashore, without Mary Jo, and his cloak dripped to the end. The irony of Chappaquiddick is that it happened at the same time that Apollo 11 was preparing to fulfill President Kennedy’s dream. And in that juxtapostion and intersection of two brothers’ stories, lies Teddy Kennedy’s legacy of the politics of hope and hatred.
He hoped that every American, regardless of race, would feel empowered to vote, including those old enough to be drafted into war. He hoped that no American child would be left behind because of bad schools or lack of health insurance. He hoped that people with disabilities could be seen as people and not just the sum of their disabilies. He hoped that Americans wouldn’t have to lose their health insurance simply because they lost or changed their employment. He hoped that an African American could become President. He hoped we would see a new era of civic engagement and national service. He hoped that he would live to see the day when no American would fear poor health because of poor health insurance or none at all. He hoped that, by reaching across the Senate’s wide aisle, political rivals might become political allies, and reach their mutual dream of an America that is strong, compassionate and wise.
His hopes were harbingers of a new age of hate politics. He bore the mark of Cain for the accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne and his enemies never stopped bringing it up. One can never atone for one’s sins, but Ted Kennedy never stopped trying. Nearly to the end, he was working for health care reform, and encouraging his Republican friends to sit at the table.
Ted Kennedy was no different from you and I: an embarassing mix of failure and achievement, of sin and grace, of pain and joy. He leaves behind a nation divided to its peril, with no political road ahead but brute power, the ugly weed watered with the stream of demogoguery and falsehood. Winner take all, let not your eye feel sorry.
Requiescat in pace, Teddy. We knew you all too well, for you were us, when we still had hope for a better America.