In all the obits published and specials aired this week, Chappaquiddick gets a few paragraphs, a few minutes, a tidy recapping of the events of July 19, 1969: The married Ted Kennedy, driving late at night with young campaign aide Mary Jo Kopechne, pitches off a bridge and into the water below. He escapes; she drowns. He does not report the accident for 10 hours. He pleads guilty and gets a suspended sentence, two months in jail.
In most of these narratives, Chappaquiddick is told as Ted's tragedy, the thing that kept him from ever becoming president. And in these narratives, he is chastened, goes on to make amends through a life of public service, advocating for the disadvantaged and the downtrodden -- and, especially, women. No one's perfect, right?
But how is it that so many women unabashedly revere Kennedy today? The particulars of Chappaquiddick are especially gory; his behavior after the accident approaches the amoral. Once he broke free and swam to the surface, Kennedy said that he dove back down seven or eight times to rescue Kopechne. Failing, he swam back to shore and checked back into his hotel, and a short time later lodged a noise complaint with the desk clerk. The people in the room next to his were partying and it was interfering with his sleep. Then he asked the desk clerk for the time.
According to the Aug. 4, 1969 edition of Newsweek, that clerk, Russell E. Peachey, told Kennedy it was 2:25 a.m., then asked, "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"No, thank you," Kennedy replied.
In 1990, GQ magazine ran a devastating profile of Kennedy. Two 16-year-old girls near the Capitol startled by a limo rolling up, the door opening, Ted sitting in the back with a bottle of wine, asking one, then the other, to join. A former aide who acted as Ted's "pimp." His penchant for dating women so young that one did not know he was the subject of many books. Kennedy, at a swank DC restaurant with his drinking buddy Chris Dodd, throwing a petite waitress on his dinner table with such force that glass and flatware shatters and goes flying. Then Ted throws her on to Dodd's lap and grinds against her. He is interrupted by other waitstaff. He is later caught in the same restaurant, in a semi-private area, having sex on the floor with a lobbyist.
In 1991, Kennedy's nephew William Kennedy Smith is charged with rape. Kennedy Smith had been out drinking with Ted and Ted's son Patrick at Au Bar in Palm Beach. Kennedy Smith is eventually acquitted, and it's never proved that Ted had any knowledge of what happened on the Kennedy grounds that night. He remarried, in 1992, and very publicly domesticated himself.
But the tawdriness -- the ostensible elder statesmen getting s - - t-faced and picking up women with his son and his nephew; the acquittal won, in part, by shredding the accuser on the stand and in the press; privilege winning out, always -- is in such stark contrast to Kennedy's politics that you have to wonder: Is this really what Kennedy thought of women?
Most feminists don't think Ted Kennedy was a misogynist. Upon news of his death, NOW, Emily's List and Planned Parenthood all released emotional, laudatory statements. It's true that Kennedy's legislative record deserves such a response. And he was quiet enough in the last 15 years of his life that it's not hard to minimize his past behavior if you want to.
Or if you're unaware -- Google reported that "Chappaquiddick" and "Mary Jo Kopechne" were the top searches Wednesday and Thursday.
"I didn't know about Chappaquiddick and the rape case until yesterday," says Miriam Perez, a 25-year-old editor at Feministing.com. She admires Kennedy's accomplishments, but is perplexed. "Like every person, he's human and there are lots of flaws involved," she says. "But a big feminist tenet is: The personal is political. So I don't feel it's fair to fully ignore it in this case."
Perhaps, along with the hagiographic Kennedy myth, we can bury this outdated tradition of excusing the reprehensible treatment of women by the same male legislators who otherwise advocate for our rights politically. It's degrading. It's like making excuses for the husband who beats you up but pays the bills on time. It may be 2009, but the bulk of the talking heads who covered this funeral were older white males, and among the few women -- eminent historian Doris Kearns Goodwin among them -- it's still shocking to hear them, nearly to a one, reduce Kennedy's bad behavior to rakish abandon or poor judgement. Why shouldn't we hold our elected male officials -- especially those who so assiduously court the female vote -- to a standard of personal decency in their treatment of women? Why do we still assume that this is an either/or proposition?
"It's a great question," says Gloria Feldt, former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Feldt worked with Kennedy and is an admirer, still. "He worked with women's groups in a very respectful way, in a way that few other senators do," she says. "But I don't know that you can reconcile it -- when it's in a group's best interest that said person stays in that chair, how do you weigh that moral equation? I wish it were simpler than that."http://www.nypost.com/php/pfriendly/print.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nypost.com%2Fseven%2F08302009%2Fpostopinion%2Fopedcolumnists%2Fkennedys_free_pass_with_women_187139.htm