The New York Times has its hands on Ted Kennedy’s posthumous memoirs, and they report on Kennedy’s first significant statement on the Chappaquiddick accident that took the life of Mary Jo Kopechne when Kennedy failed to report the sinking of his car for several hours.  In the book, due out in two weeks, Kennedy claims that the death of Kopechne and his “terrible decisions” haunted him for the rest of his life:

In a memoir being published this month, Senator Edward M. Kennedy called his behavior after the 1969 car accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne “inexcusable” and said the events might have shortened the life of his ailing father, Joseph P. Kennedy.

In that book, “True Compass,” Mr. Kennedy said he was dazed, afraid and panicked in the minutes and hours after he drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island with Ms. Kopechne as his passenger.

The senator, who left the scene and did not report the accident to the police until after her body was found the next day, admitted in the memoir that he had “made terrible decisions” at Chappaquiddick. He also said that he had hardly known Ms. Kopechne, a young woman who had been an aide to his late brother Robert, and that he had had no romantic relationship with her.

The account by Mr. Kennedy, who died on Aug. 25 at age 77, adds little to what is known about the accident and its aftermath but recounts how they weighed on him and his family. The book does not shy from the accident, or from some other less savory aspects of the senator’s life, including a notorious 1991 drinking episode in Palm Beach, Fla., or the years of heavy drinking and women-chasing that followed his 1982 divorce from his first wife, Joan.

Somehow, this self-serving gloss doesn’t quite jibe with the reminiscences of his friend Ed Klein, who describe a man hardly “haunted” by his actions:

I don’t know if you know this or not, but one of his favorite topics of humor was indeed Chappaquiddick itself. And he would ask people, “have you heard any new jokes about Chappaquiddick?” That is just the most amazing thing. It’s not that he didn’t feel remorse about the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, but that he still always saw the other side of everything and the ridiculous side of things, too.

Does that sound like a man “haunted” by the death he caused, and the cowardly actions he took to avoid responsibility for it? Read Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-Up for a better perspective on Kennedy’s actions at the time, which will give some perspective on this lame valediction on the subject.

In another passage, it sounds as though Ronald Reagan not only outfoxed him on policy, but that he did it so well that twenty years later, Kennedy still didn’t realize he’d been played:

While Mr. Kennedy had little patience for the president’s piety and punctiliousness, he found the disengagement of Mr. Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, at times oddly charming, though at other times frustrating. The senator said it had been difficult to get Reagan to focus on policy matters. He described a meeting with him that he and other senators had sought to press for shoe and textile import limits.

The senators were told that they would have just 30 minutes with the president. Reagan began the meeting, the book said, commenting on Mr. Kennedy’s shoes — asking if they were Bostonians — and then talking for 20 minutes about shoes and his experience selling shoes for his father. “Several of us began conspicuously to glance at our watches.” But to no avail. “And it was over!” Mr. Kennedy said. “No one got a word in about shoe or textile quota legislation.”

It sounds as though that’s exactly what Reagan — a free-trade advocate — wanted.  They wanted face time with the President, which would be difficult to reject out of hand, so Reagan made sure they didn’t get a chance to use it.  In 20 years, Kennedy couldn’t figure that out?

I’m sure Kennedy’s book will sell plenty of copies, but I doubt it will help enhance his reputation.

Tags: New York