Somehow, the fact that she recognizes Chappaquiddick as “unconscionable, despicable, unmanly and inexplicable” only makes it worse. It’s come to this:
Yet, ironically, following this nadir in his life/ career, Ted Kennedy seemed to have genuinely refashioned himself as a serious, idealistic, tirelessly energetic liberal Democrat in the mold of 1960s/1970s American liberalism, arguably the greatest Democratic senator of the 20th century. His tireless advocacy of civil rights, rights for disabled Americans, health care, voting reform, his courageous vote against the Iraq war (when numerous Democrats including Hillary Clinton voted for it) suggest that there are not only “second acts” in American lives, but that the Renaissance concept of the “fortunate fall” may be relevant here: one “falls” as Adam and Eve “fell”; one sins and repents and is forgiven, provided that one remakes one’s life…
Yet if one weighs the life of a single young woman against the accomplishments of the man President Obama has called the greatest Democratic senator in history, what is one to think?
The poet John Berryman once wondered: “Is wickedness soluble in art?”. One might rephrase, in a vocabulary more suitable for our politicized era: “Is wickedness soluble in good deeds?”
This paradox lies at the heart of so much of public life: individuals of dubious character and cruel deeds may redeem themselves in selfless actions. Fidelity to a personal code of morality would seem to fade in significance as the public sphere, like an enormous sun, blinds us to all else.
This reminds me of Elizabeth Wurtzel talking after 9/11 about how aesthetically beautiful the collapse of the Towers seemed to her. Anyone can have a monstrous thought, but it takes a special depravity to insist on publicizing it. And yet — Oates’s point here is the unstated reason why so many lefties look the other way at Teddy’s most obscene moment, isn’t it? When you come right down to it, they’ve made a moral calculus and decided in Kennedy’s favor. It’s really as simple as that.
If we’d had insatiable 24/7 cable news networks in July 1969, the accident on Chappaquiddick Island in which a passenger in a car driven by Sen. Edward Kennedy drowned would likely have dominated the national consciousness for months…
This thought experiment invites a question to which there is no nonpartisan answer: Was it just as well that we didn’t — couldn’t — have a media feeding frenzy over Chappaquiddick in 1969? Would the nation have been better off if Kennedy had been shamed into private life?
Or, as I believe, is the nation — particularly our disabled and disadvantaged residents — better off for the 40 years of service he was able to render after that terrible night?
Translation: It’s a good thing that Teddy never did time for leaving someone to die or else we would have been deprived of all sorts of sweet, sweet left-wing legislation. These cretins are actually willing to grant absolution for homicide to advance their policy agenda. And they say Glenn Beck’s crazy.
Related to Zorn’s piece, here’s CNN asserting that today’s media never would have let Teddy get away with Chappaquiddick. Isn’t that true, actually? Not only would you have Fox and talk radio driving the story, but the simple fact of having to fill airtime 24/7 on cable news would force the hands of outfits like CNN and MSNBC. And another point: For all the grief we give the media for their Kennedy love, Chappaquiddick was covered at the time. I’d bet well in excess of 90 percent of Massachusetts voters heard about it. And yet, a mere year after it happened, he still won reelection with over 60 percent of the vote. There was no media cover-up; Democrats simply don’t care, and never really have.
Update: A friend’s giving me a hard time on Twitter, insisting I was too tough on Oates. Probably true. The very last line is clearly critical of the importance placed on public virtue at the expense of personal morality. I do think she’s ultimately ambivalent on the key question, though, of whether Teddy’s Senate career “redeemed” him from his crime at Chappaquiddick. The fact that she’s even willing to consider it as a calculus — the public good balanced against the private evil, even in a case of homicide — is the moral error I was driving at in the post.