Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Monday, September 21, 2009

Chappaquiddick stains Kennedy legacy

President Obama called Sen. Ted Kennedy “the soul of the Democratic Party.” But the Democratic Party hasn’t had a soul since the halcyon days of President Johnson’s domestic policies.

Kennedy himself sometimes lacked Democratic soul. He sided with corporate America in its passion for deregulation, acquiesced in tax cuts for the rich, urged globalization and pushed so-called “fair trade” accords that killed union jobs.

Kennedy even yielded on the self-proclaimed cause of his life: government-run universal national health. In 1971 he introduced a bill to do just that. Later he abandoned it. Up to his recent death he was willing to accept just some private role in health insurance rather than the all-public role it should be.

But it was more than policy differences that left this political observer with queasy feelings about Kennedy. It is Chappaquiddick.

His legacy will forever be tarnished by his irresponsibility and cowardice in that 1969 tragedy. A drunken Kennedy drove into the pond and swam to safety. He left a young woman in the car to drown.

Then, for nearly 10 hours he failed to report the accident to police. And: he dispatched a family lawyer to the woman’s family before the press got word. A “small shot” might have spent time in jail for doing less.

The womanizing by President John Kennedy can be overlooked. But what is unforgivable is that he was a scurvy politician, not a leader. He said he would consider pulling troops out of Vietnam--but not until he was reelected in 1964.

The vaulting opportunism of Bobby Kennedy can be forgiven. Yet he did not seek the presidency in 1968 until Gene McCarthy showed that President Johnson was vulnerable on Vietnam. Bobby realized that his antiwar message would play even in Peoria.

But it is difficult to forgive Ted Kennedy for leaving Mary Jo Kopechne to die. Indeed, he felt so guilty he never forgave himself. His conscience haunted him the rest of his life.

The tragedy also left unanswered questions. The New York Times obituary writer asked: “Why was the car on an isolated road? What sort of relationship did he and Kopechne have? Could she have been saved if he had sought help immediately? Why did he tell his political advisers about the accident before reporting it to police?”

Questions aside, Kennedy made a horrendous political error out of hubris: challenging President Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. He mistakenly thought that all he needed was the Kennedy mystique.

Nevertheless, Ted Kennedy had some laudable traits.

Dennis Myers, a Reno columnist, notes the incredible thoughtfulness of Ted Kennedy. He contacted all 177 families from Massachusetts connected with 9/11.

“Kennedy kept calling family members year after year,” Myers writes. “One woman told a reporter last year, ‘I can’t imagine getting through the last seven years without him.’ ”

After he abandoned playboyism. boozing and rakism, the Kennedy political record was mostly good. As Jack Newfield, no bleeding-heart liberal, wrote in The Nation in 2002:

“Kennedy has drafted and shaped more landmark legislation than liberal giants like Robert Wagner, Hubert Humphrey, Estes Kefauver and Herbert Lehmann. He looks like the best and most effective senator of the past hundred years.”

Kennedy was a proud liberal even after the right-wing made liberal a dirty word.

He voted against authorizing the Iraq War, calling it the best vote he ever cast. It was. He championed civil rights and women’s sports rights under Title IX. He supported the Immigration Act of 1965 which did away with the favoritism to those of northern European decent.

He backed sanctions against South Africa for trying to maintain its abominable apartheid. He sponsored the disabilities act banning discrimination against the handicapped. He fought to ban the reprehensible poll tax.

He supported federal funding to combat AIDS. He backed an increase in the minimum wage. He fought for a program of low-cost health insurance for kids of working class parents. He won a $50 million appropriation for 30 community health centers, since expanded to 1,200.

Kennedy led the fight to save Social Security from the rapacious and retrograde privatization of President Bush. He led the successful fight to thwart the effort by President Reagan to weaken the Voting Rights Act.

Fair Housing law. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Meals on wheels. Insurance that can be carried from job to job. Medicare drug benefits. All Kennedy platforms.

Of his more than 15,000 votes in the Senate, many were in favor of racial minorities, gays and lesbians, the elderly and the poor.

America’s debt to Kennedy is large. As Matthew 25:21 says: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”


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