Kennedy and Women

by Hanna Rosin

I waited all day yesterday for some important news outlet to turn and face Chappaquiddick full on, but none did. Instead it was left to euphemisms, "the controversy," "the shadow over his life." The Kopechne parents have died, and we have no British tradition of truth telling obituaries here. But as Clive Crook wrote, "What he did was terrible. He survived as a politician only because of his name--a disgusting thing." But even Clive jumps too quickly to the redemption.

It's not just about Chappaquiddick. There is the bigger problem of the Kennedy women, and how the family conceived of their role in the legacy. The example was set by Rose, "a wife and mother whose emotions were rigidly controlled and whose mechanisms of denial so highly refined that she could accept her husband's loversnotably Gloria Swansoninto her home," from a review of a book on the Kennedy women. The wives and daughters were pretty statues, quietly suffering  or, if they were lucky, they did "charity" work. There is Joe Kennedy's established line of political succession, which omitted all the daughters (I write more about this on DoubleX here).

The old guard feminists have long ago made peace with Kennedy. Judith Lichtman recalled this morning the great work Kennedy did in Borking Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Kennedy gave a pivotal speech talking about "back alley abortions" in a way the feminists could never have gotten away with. But even this protector role he played for feminists has a hidebound, patrician air about it.

The next generation of Kennedy women are doing it on their own: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Caroline (sort of) and Maria Shriver, who is not quite as famous as her husband but still. I've read rumors today that Vicki Kennedy is being talked about as a succesor to her husband's Senate seat. For the Kennedy women, that would be a step backwards. I really hope she doesn't.

I am not seething with rage at Kennedy, but that is mostly because of what Clive mentioned. There are very few examples of true redemption in public life, and Kennedy may be one of them. We don't know if he woke up and thought about Mary Jo Kopechne every morning or if it was in some way, his rosebud. But he certainly behaved like a man foregoing glory for daily penance. In this morning's New York Times, Adam Clymer gives a peek into Kennedy's Senate life which confirms this.

Like a schoolboy bored in class, Robert passed Ted a note: “Is this the way I become a good senator sitting here and waiting my turn?” Ted scribbled, “Yes.” Then Robert asked, “How many hours do I have to sit here to be a good senator?” Ted replied, “As long as necessary, Robbie.”