Anyone who was alive at the time remembers the two defining “downfall” moments of Ted Kennedy’s career. One was the (supposed) inadequacy of his response to the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969, and the other was the (supposed) inadequacy of his response to Roger Mudd’s question, “Why do you want to be president?” in a 1979 CBS television interview.
Never having seen or heard his televised speech to the people of Massachusetts in 1969, or the full Mudd interview in 1979, I bought into the media’s take that both responses showed fatal flaws in Kennedy’s character. That certainly was the conventional wisdom, and has remained so.
I would still be buying into it if I hadn’t heard the actual sound clips on the radio the other morning.
POTUS radio (a Sirius/XM channel dedicated to political news), in an overview of Kennedy’s life the day after his death, played a lengthy segment, uninterrupted, of the famous Chappaquiddick speech, and a few minutes later played Kennedy’s answer to Roger Mudd’s question in its entirety.
I was astonished to discover, for the first time, that neither moment showed a flaw in Kennedy’s character.
Starting with the later one first, it was clear that the 3-second pause that began Kennedy’s response to Mudd’s question – a pause widely interpreted at the time to mean that Kennedy didn’t know why he wanted to be president – meant nothing of the kind. After the pause, his first words were, “Well I, were I to make the announcement to run…” In other words, he hadn’t announced yet. How do you answer a question like “Why do you want to be president?” when the time has not yet come for you to announce you are running? You can’t. Any direct answer Kennedy could have given that started with the thought, “I want to be president because…” would have tipped his hand that he planned to get into the race. The answer he did give once he began, phrased in the subjunctive case (“were I to run,” etc.), was complete, thorough, and fully satisfactory. He talked of the resources of the United States, and the major problems facing the country, and how the current leadership was not marshaling the former to help solve the latter.
If all you knew of it was the clip of the 3-second pause that was aired over and over, or what you read about it in the morning papers and weekly and monthly news journals, you would have thought Kennedy was not suited to be president. Because that’s what the press wanted you to think.
Regarding the Chappaquiddick speech of ten years earlier, the popular wisdom has always been that Kennedy failed to give a full account of the night he drove his car off a bridge, resulting in the drowning death of his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. Hearing the speech on POTUS radio the other morning, I was taken aback to realize that the popular wisdom I had always believed had been wrong. Kennedy gave a fully credible account of the night’s events. As he described his own near-drowning, as water filled the car and his lungs, and the cerebral concussion he suffered in the event, and the repeated unsuccessful attempts he made to dive back down and save Kopechne, and the state of shock that followed, it was easy to identify with his confusion and flawed decision-making in the immediate aftermath. He didn’t make excuses or ask to be forgiven. He owned up to his actions. And he was fully, and believably, penitent for his role in the loss of Kopechne’s life.
Here is a page that gives you the complete text of that speech. It also has links to video and audio excerpts, but I don’t recommend you go to those. Because they are excerpts, they present yet another “mediated” (rather than direct) experience of his speech, and therefore an untrue one. Just read the text of his address, and see if you don’t agree with me.
Why did the press use both these moments to portray Kennedy as an unserious, irresponsible man? Why was the public so eager to buy into this story instead of the true one? Did it suit our need for a schadenfreudy “how the mighty have fallen” narrative? Did it (in some perversely satisfying way) suit a general hopelessness in the national mood? Traumatized by two Kennedy assassinations (one a president, the other running for president), did we somehow need to get Ted out of the line of fire, for his own and our sakes? I think it may have been all these things.
Today, we’re still dragging our leaders down. This may be because we lost “Daddy” on November 22, 1963, and all “new dads” are cast into the role of rank pretender for us. We can only like them so long before we turn on them. It may be that the country won’t be able to get moving again until every American who was alive on November 22, 1963 has died. Then, fully cleansed at last of the blood that spilled on that date, the nation can respect its leaders once again.
From a blog on The Huffington Post today that’s intended to be alarming:
West Des Moines, Iowa – Two nights before the crucial first-in-the-nation caucuses, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee appealed to God to grant his supporters guidance as the former Arkansas governor struggled to maintain his tenuous lead.
“We cannot do it,” he said referring to Thursday night’s Republican caucus, “by arming ourselves and taking anyone out. We will go to the caucuses having knelt on our knees and having asked God for his wisdom.”
Huckabee scares the bejeebus out of me, but what I’m trying to decide (in my contrarian way) is if the above quote from him would seem all that weird to me if I read it in an American history book–e.g., if it were a quote from Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, or, indeed, Abraham Lincoln going into an election. It’s a very “unmodern” thing for Huckabee to be saying, but if we wouldn’t crucify Lincoln for saying it, we ought not do it to Huckabee. We should fear him if he were to mix his religion with policy, which in fact he might do, but I think that when he issues statements about his reliance on his personal faith for strength and wisdom, and his trust in Providence for the right outcome, we’re on weak ground to criticize that–unless we’re willing to criticize every American president who said something similar from Washington through Truman.