Monday, April 9, 2018

Chappaquiddick (the Movie)

The youngest of the Kennedy brothers, Edward ("Ted") Kennedy (1932-2009) was elected to the Senate in 1962 and served as Senator until his death, accumulating a long and distinguished legacy, in some ways more admirable and more consequential than that of either of his more glamorous brothers. One permanent dark spot on that legacy, however, was the tragic event ever since then known by the name of the island where it took place, Chappaquiddick, now the subject of a movie. Kennedy's behavior at Chappaquiddick does not in itself diminish his accomplishments as a senator, but neither can those accomplishments ever erase the ignominy that justly attaches to that tragic event and to his behavior that week.

Those of us above a certain age can well remember how it all played out - the initial tragedy and the successful spinning of it - that salvaged Kennedy's public career (if not his presidential prospects). A friend of mine at the time speculated that Chappaquiddick and the moon landing were not completely coincidental - that the latter event's evocation of the murdered President (who had first made a landing on the moon before the end of the 1960s a national goal) had cast a particular pall over Ted's thinking and emotions that week and somehow may have contributed to the sad sequence of events, which the movie portrays so effectively.  (Another friend at the time used the accident to argue against seat belts and automatic locks in cars!)

Obviously this is a story about entitlement - how rich, privileged people get special treatment in our society and avoid the full consequences of their misbehavior. It is obviously about how Ted Kennedy took such privilege completely for granted and expected the problem he had created to be fixed for him by others - and how his family (centered on his reprehensible but still powerful father) and the family's cohort of Camelot veterans (notably in the film, Ted Sorenson and Robert McNamara) colluded to do the fixing. That is an interesting story, but also an obvious one. And it will not likely shock or even surprise those who have no actual memory of Camelot fantasies!

The more interesting story is the struggle that goes on inside Ted himself, externalized somewhat in the conflict between him and his cousin Joe Gargan. The movie begins, hauntingly, with photos of the older Kennedy brothers - Joe, Jr., Jack, and Bobby. That (and the ever-present moon-landing motif) are powerful reminders of the complex web of expectations Ted labored under, as not only the youngest but the presumed least of the brothers. Toward the end, Ted himself expresses his ambivalence quite clearly in a final confrontation with the initial source of so much of his and the family's problem, his father's ambition.

In the end, Ted himself saves his career by going on TV to tell his version of the story and to appeal to the sentiments and nostalgia of his constituents and the American people at large. I can remember watching that speech. It was very moving. Some of those I watched it with were brought to tears. And, while Kennedy never became President, he did have a long and effective career after all.

It is, of course, one of the ironies of history that in the end Ted would probably be more effective and consequential politically than any of his brothers. At the time, however, that all lay way in the future and probably would have seemed an unlikely outcome. In the end, my guess is that it took the traumatic defeat of his presidential ambitions in 1980 to liberate him finally from the Kennedy curse of White House ambition. Indeed, it was his not ever becoming president that seemed to redeem him and enabled him to play the role he later did play in the Senate. most especially as an advocate for universal health care. There really are much more important things than becoming president! 

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