On arrogance, atonement, and ambivalence
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.
~Joyce Carol Oates, in an essay penned after Teddy Kennedy's death
This isn't normally a political blog, but a few politicky matters have been on my mind in recent weeks, most notably, the death last month of Senator Edward Kennedy. I know this topic has already been blogged within an inch of its life, so I hope you'll bear with me for weighing in with still more. In any case, this isn't really about politics. In fact, I'm not sure exactly what all this post is about, or even exactly what points I am trying to make, and I'd better warn you right off the bat that I will probably be all over the place with this one. I just felt a need to start writing and see where it goes. So here it goes...
As I noted on a recent discussion on Steve Salerno's SHAMblog, I neither canonize nor demonize Ted Kennedy, but, like many Americans, I have at times bought into the sheer romance of the Kennedy myth. How could I not? Apart from their public lives as progressives, idealists, altruists, and torchbearers of compassion, the private lives of this perfectly lovely and deeply haunted family have constantly been on parade as well, for much of the past century and all of this one so far. While detractors almost gleefully focus on the royal screw-ups, the drunkenness, and the perceived depravity, the more lasting Kennedy images, for many, have been more wholesome and so thoroughly American: the sun-kissed skin and tousled hair and radiant toothy smiles, the touch football games on the sprawling lawn of the huge family compound, the sailing jaunts on Nantucket Sound. (Non-fans might point out that even the loveliness is transitory, for as they age, Kennedy women tend to get sun-baked and leathery, while the men just get red and bloated.)
Even for Kennedy lovers the picture is bittersweet, because, of course, there are the tragedies as well. This only makes the Kennedy family saga all the more compelling to some romanticists who can't get away from the Camelot metaphor. Well, I say Camelot, Schmamelot; I know the real story. Many years ago, a mystical-minded artist friend of mine – the very same person who got me into New-Age stuff in the first place – told me that he had it on good authority, from another mystic he knew, that the Kennedy family is in fact a reincarnation of some branch or other of the great Hapsburg (alternative spelling: Habsburg) dynasty of Europe. This, he said, explains the thread of tragedy woven throughout the Kennedy family story, as well as their amazing penchant for do-goodism; these are all karmic phenomena to balance out the cruelty and decadance of that old dynasty. Some would argue that some of the Kennedy men have done their part to keep the tradition of decadence alive and well, though apparently not in the incestuous way of the Spanish Hapsburgs. And some would contend that the tragedies suffered by the Kennedy family were karma for their own misdeeds in this life. Joe Kennedy Senior alone apparently racked up enough bad karma to last for generations, including arranging to have his own daughter Rosemary lobotomized in the crude way that it was done in the early 1940s, and then hiding her away forever. But that's another story...
All mythology, metaphor, and mysticism aside, even many conservatives agree that despite his private failings, Ted Kennedy did an enormous amount of good in his decades of public life. And for the benefit of those who scoff at the notion that a member of the plutocracy can truly identify with the less fortunate, I think that it is indeed possible for a person to be extraordinarily wealthy and still have genuine compassion for those who are not. I think of one of our late local (Texas) heroes, Marvin Zindler who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth as well, but never forgot that "it's hell to be poor." Throughout his long life, Marvin never stopped working on behalf of the downtrodden. The same can truthfully be said of Ted Kennedy. Despite his wealth and access to the best that life had to offer (including, of course, the very best health care), he did seem to have the ability to truly empathize with the majority who weren't so fortunate. As President Obama said in his September 9 speech to Congress, regarding Kennedy's passion for health care reform*...
...Ted Kennedy's passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick. And he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance, what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent, there is something that could make you better, but I just can't afford it.
For me, it really isn't so difficult to believe that someone born to wealth and privilege can actually care about those who weren't.
Oh, black water...
Without vilifying Kennedy or his legacy in any way, however, I still cannot get Mary Jo Kopechne out of my mind. I'm looking again, as I have so many times over the past couple of weeks, at the cover of the August 1, 1969 issue of Time magazine, which I rescued years ago from the chaos of my mother's house. There we see a gritty black-and-white photo of Teddy, still in a neck brace, looking grim after Mary Jo's funeral. A diagonal banner on the upper right-hand corner reads, "The Kennedy Debacle: A Girl Dead, A Career In Jeopardy." Yes, even though she was eight days shy of her twenty-ninth birthday at the time she died, Time referred to Mary Jo as "a girl," probably because she was unmarried. That was simply one of the conventions of journalese in those last days before the new wave of feminism hit.
In the decades since Teddy's black 1967 Oldsmobile plunged into the cold waters of Poucha Pond, countless magazine and newspaper articles have been written about the incident, as well as more than fifteen books, including a fictionalized treatment, Black Water, by the prolific novelist Joyce Carol Oates. (Here is the link to the essay quoted above, which Oates wrote after Kennedy's death.)
Today many folks are saying, "Enough already; it's ancient history." But I wonder, as so many others have, what Mary Jo's family (if any are left) and her friends have been thinking these past few weeks, what with all of the accolades and tributes and such. They have, it seems, been silent on the matter, even as they've kept mostly silent for the past several decades. But surely they have opinions, and I wonder if they believe that Teddy's decades of good works in any way atoned for what happened that night at Chappaquiddick.
As might be expected, the consensus among Kennedy's fans and admirers is yes, while his detractors indignantly say no. Not surprisingly, most people's opinions about the matter – at least in the U.S. – seem tied to their own political and/or religious leanings. As columnist Kathleen Parker wrote recently, regarding those who tend to vilify Kennedy (particularly on moral/religious grounds):
One can’t help wondering, nonetheless, how those same Old Testament celebrants would have treated Kennedy had he, as recompense for his sins, embarked on a crusade against abortion and same-sex marriage instead of [for] universal health care. My modest guess is that they would have found a way to forgive him and insisted that a man’s worst moment is not the sum of his life.
Conversely, I have no doubt that if Teddy had spent the rest of his life crusading against abortion and gay marriage and for the Christian conservative vision of "family values," liberals would have the ones been carrying the "Remember Mary Jo" banner.
In any case, as Cathleen Falsani wrote in a recent Religion News Service piece, "Ted Kennedy refused to be defined by his worst moments. None of us wants to be reduced to the sum of our mistakes, deadly or otherwise." She added that it's uncommon to be able to rise above terrible mistakes without becoming paralyzed by guilt or regret. (Now, that last bit may be true in politics or even in the lives of ordinary folk, but I'm thinking that Cathleen must not be familiar with the New-Wage guru biz, which is riddled with masters of self-reinvention who regularly sweep their sordid misdeeds under the carpet, often leaving all manner of "collateral damage" on their road to success. But I'll get to that later.) Naturally, Kennedy-haters see his "refusal to be defined by his mistakes" as a mark of arrogance or even sociopathy.
So who's right? Damned if I know. But I do agree with Kathleen Parker that much of it comes down to partisan politics. And as we all know, when politics come in the door, rationality flies out the window. Just ask Emory University psychologist Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding The Fate of our Nation.
Of course I too have my biases and irrationalities, as may be abundantly clear in any of my blog posts. In regard to the question of atonement, however, specifically Ted Kennedy's, I am hopelessly undecided, despite the fact that I hold generally liberal views on social issues (pro-choice, etc.). I can't bring myself to side with either the Kennedy detractors or his admirers, though I lean more towards the latter. At the risk of sounding simplistic, though, one point that sticks with me is this: Although Chappaquiddick may have privately tormented Ted Kennedy for the rest of his life, and there's no doubt that it permanently ruined his chance at the presidency, he still, in a sense, "got away with it." At the very least he never thoroughly answered the questions about what happened. And at the time it happened, he did not have to deal with scrutiny from the press or the public in a way that he would have if the incident had happened today.
A close friend of his, author and editor Ed Klein, said in an interview following Kennedy's death that eventually Kennedy was even able to make jokes about Chappaquiddick, and it was one of his favorite topics of humor. (And I hope you will forgive me for bringing this matter up; I know it has been a pet topic of Kennedy-haters everywhere, but I am not one of them.) "It’s not that he didn’t feel remorse about the death of Mary Jo Kopechne," explained Klein, in an interview on The Diane Rehm Show), "but that he still always saw the other side of everything and the ridiculous side of things, too."
Ridiculous...hmm. Well, yes, many of us tend to turn to dark humor at times to deal with the darkness in our lives. Still, the quotation above does come across as a tad callous. Or maybe it's just me.
Or maybe not.
When the rich are (in)different...
I have no doubt that my own personal experiences, rather than my politics, are an influence on my unwillingness to simply dismiss Mary Jo's sad story as ancient history. Whatever else it might be, to me the Chappaquiddick incident is a reminder that the rich and powerful – no matter what their political leanings or religious preferences – do manage to get away with things that would land ordinary people in prison for years, perhaps even for life. And all too often, those without nearly so much money and influence, caught up in tragedy or trauma, are easily manipulated into being accomplices in what could be viewed as a miscarriage of justice.
Many years ago, in the wee hours of a bleak November morning, my father was killed in an auto-pedestrian accident. He had apparently had car trouble and was walking alongside a road near our home to find assistance. Either that, or he was simply trying to walk home, with the idea that he would deal with the car later that day when the gas stations were open. (This was before the days of cell phones and 24-hour gas stations.) I imagine the car that hit him seemed to come out of nowhere; we were told there were skid marks for more than eighty feet. His skull was fractured, his neck was broken, and there were numerous other injuries. He may have lived for a short while after he was hit; there was some confusion on that matter. My mom said she was told that for some reason the police on the scene wouldn't let the ambulance driver through to attend my dad. In any case, he died at the scene, and within a short time the cops were ringing our doorbell.
And life was never the same after that.
The young man who plowed my dad down was intoxicated, and apparently had a history of speeding and drunk-driving incidents, although he had never killed anyone up until then. The incident did not make the front page of the local paper or the top story on the local news, as it might have today. It was just a little paragraph hidden somewhere in the Metro section. This was before the days of M.A.D.D., and drunk driving carried neither the potential legal ramifications nor the social stigma it does today. In those days it was often a far more grievous crime to possess a single marijuana cigarette than it was to get sloshed and get behind the wheel. (In Texas, once upon a time, a second offense for possession of even small amounts of marijuana could result in life imprisonment.) Sure, my dad's death was tragic, but it was just one of those things.
Even so, the crime of vehicular manslaughter existed, as well as lesser offenses related to drinking and driving, and my mother very well could have pressed charges, even if only on civil grounds. You might think she would have had a pretty solid case. But she was strongly advised against taking any legal action. Among those advising her was her own attorney, whom she had retained to help her sort through the quagmire of paperwork following my father's death. It seems that the man who had killed my dad was the scion of a wealthy and privileged family; not only were his folks rich, but he had an uncle who, we were told, was a very influential judge. The family would have enormous resources at their disposal to fight any charges, and it could be a long and expensive battle for us, with no guarantee of victory.
Moreover, my mom was told, my father's own alcoholism – and the fact that he himself was probably a bit impaired at the time he was killed – would surely be brought out during the proceedings. With all of the other nearly overwhelming problems she was now dealing with as a suddenly widowed stay-at-home mom with three minor children, did my mother really want the additional pain of seeing her husband's name dragged through the mud, which the defense team would almost certainly do? After all, if my father hadn't been stumbling down that road at one o'clock in the morning, when decent folk are home in bed, he never would have been hit. (I'm sure those were not the exact words that were used, but that was the gist of the message.)
It was true that my father had a drinking problem, and it had steadily been getting worse. Over the years my mom and several of my dad's colleagues had tried to persuade him to get help, but to no avail. This was before intervention became fashionable. Despite the severity of the problem, he still managed to be a good dad, a dutiful son to his parents, and a very good provider. He was a handsome, friendly guy whom everyone liked; he never knew a stranger, as the saying goes. A brainy man with two master's degrees (yes, real degrees from real universities), he had a respectable job as a geophysicist for a major oil company. He never got noticeably drunk at home, nor did he engage in any kind of violent behavior that I ever saw. In fact, I never even knew he was an alcoholic till I was about eleven. He did his drinking away from home, in neighborhood bars or ice houses after work, and increasingly stayed out all night, coming home in the pre-dawn hours to sober up so he could get up and drag himself to the office the next day. As the all-nighters grew more frequent, I think we all lived in silent dread that one of my father's binges would result in his being injured or killed, or injuring or killing someone else. So when the doorbell rang on that November morning, my mother knew before she answered why it was ringing. And when she came up to my room and said, "Wake up, Connie...", I knew before she said another word what had happened.
One night, while we were all still numb from shock, the parents of the young man who had killed my dad showed up on our front porch to plead their son's case to my mom. The father, as I remember, was rather dour and silent through the whole exchange, and looked very much as if he would rather be anywhere else; it was the mother who did most of the talking. She explained to my mom that their son had never done anything like this before, and that he, and they, were more sorry than we would ever know that it had happened. "He really is such a good boy," she explained, tears pouring down her face. I do not recall my mom's exact response, only that she listened politely. It could have been that she was just stunned into silence.
Not long after that, my mother found out that the young man had suffered some sort of emotional breakdown and had to be institutionalized. Although still grieving, she was genuinely concerned about him. She had said to us kids that, as terrible as it sounded, if anyone had to die as a result of my father's drinking, it was better that it was my dad. She knew that if he had killed someone else, he would never be able to forgive himself and might not be able to live with what he had done. Her heart went out to the young man, who, she imagined, was being tormented by his own guilt. So she called his parents' home to ask about him and offer whatever moral support she could.
When the family's maid answered the phone, my mother asked to speak to one of the parents, but was told they weren't available. She tried again a few days later, and this time the maid was able to get the dad to come to the phone. "I don't know if you got my message," she told him, "but I called the other day when you were out." To which the man replied gruffly, "I was home, but I was watching a ball game." He was very perfunctory, and my mom, more than a little taken aback, asked him how his son was doing. "He's doing all right," was the terse reply, but he offered no details, and he didn't ask my mom how we were all doing. It was clear that he did not want to prolong the conversation any longer than absolutely necessary. So that was pretty much that.
And life went on. We grew up. I never found out what ultimately happened to the young man. Did he emerge from his breakdown, and go on to lead something resembling a normal life? Did he ever feel that he had to atone for what he did, and did he feel he was successful in doing so? Has he contributed to the world in a good way? Although nothing he could ever do would bring my father back, I share my mom's compassion and would like to think that he eventually found peace. I simply couldn't hold it against him personally that his dad was so arrogant and rude, or that "the system" has always provided the rich with a buffer against their own misdeeds.
I also sometimes think about the fact that the man who killed my father has the same last name as a Texas judge-turned-Congressman who, in his judge days, had a reputation for imposing creative sentences on drunk drivers and other wrongdoers. He really seemed to have it out for drunk drivers in particular, and designed his sentences to make offenders realize the impact of their deeds on the victims. His last name is not a terribly uncommon one, however, and in truth I have no idea if he is related to the man who killed my dad; every Internet search leads to a dead end, so to speak. Still, I wonder. Although I am no fan of the Congressman's politics, I did admire him for his hard-line stance on driving under the influence.
So back to the original question...
As for whether or not Ted Kennedy atoned for Mary Jo Kopechne's death, here's what I think: It's not up to any one of us to decide this issue, no matter how strong our opinions may be, no matter how righteously conservative or virtuously liberal we are, no matter in which direction we twirl our cognitive kaleidoscopes (as The Political Brain author Drew Westen might put it). While many may agree that there was no real legal justice for Mary Jo's death, it is also true that her family did not pursue action against Kennedy, their stated reason being that they did not want to be perceived as going after "blood money." (Can you imagine such a possibility stopping anyone from litigation these days?) The Kopechnes did, however, receive a payment of nearly $91,000.00 from Kennedy personally, and a check for $50,000.00 from his insurance company.
Heeding the warnings of her advisers, and no doubt also influenced by the visit from the parents of the boy who killed my dad, my mother chose not to pursue legal action either. My family did, however, receive a settlement from the young man's family for my father's death: a grand total of $2,000.00 – $500.00 for each surviving family member. No, I did not inadvertently leave out any zeroes. You read it right. So in that sense, even though the man who killed my father may have been privately angst-ridden by what he did, it's also true that he – or at least his family – got off pretty easily, all things considered. And that kind of sticks in my craw as well.
Which, irrational as it may be, is probably one reason I just can't let go of Mary Jo Kopechne's story entirely.
Bringing it back to my Whirled...
I would even go so far as to speculate that my family's story also sheds some light on why I am so reluctant to cut any slack to the New-Wage luminaries who seemingly "get away with" things too – the self-help stars who dump their spouses for newer models and either gloss over the situation entirely, or exploit it by making themselves seem like the wronged party or the wise hero; the self-styled financial wizards who cheerfully take hundreds of thousands of dollars of other people's money to fund their own lavish lifestyles, while providing very little of value in return; the gurus who molest their students in the guise of furthering the students' spiritual development; the venerable motivational leaders who dally with the under-aged daughters of their friends or business partners and get away scot-free. You can talk all you want about karma, judgment, or poetic justice, and you may very well be right, but sometimes, justice on a more mundane and obvious level would seem so satisfying.
Is it possible that in some way, at least some of these New-Wage rapscallions** have atoned for their own misdeeds? Even if they have behaved in less than honorable ways in their personal lives, could it be that by giving hope to others they have contributed to the world in a meaningful way? Should we give them the benefit of the doubt, even as so many have given Ted Kennedy that benefit? Or is any willingness to overlook their transgressions merely a symptom of blindness, as Joyce Carol Oates put it?
I just don't know. (In case you haven't guessed yet, I'm not nearly as certain about things as I may appear to be on some of my posts.) I do find it difficult to give the benefit of the doubt to hucksters who, though they may acknowledge and even be marginally contrite about "past mistakes," continue with their scamming and bad behavior. I still think it's important to call them on their crap – someone needs to, and not that many people do – and this, I suppose, is the main reason this blog still exists. I also realize that some people will think I am insulting Ted Kennedy's memory, or trivializing his accomplishments, by seeming to lump him into the same category as New-Wage hucksters whose main contribution to the world is nonstop self-aggrandizement. That's not my intention at all; I simply see the parallels between people's often irrational attitudes towards political figures and their equally irrational attitudes towards the dubious heroes of the selfish-help industry.
Here's what I do know: we all have our stories, which in their own way are, like the Kennedys, at once perfectly lovely and deeply haunted. "Who would you be without your story?" asks sweetly smiling New-Wage guru-ette Byron Katie of The Work fame, whose entire oeuvre, and much of her appeal, seem to center around her own "story." And her fans, including other successful New-Wage gurus, smile and nod and preach about ridding yourself of your story, or "cleaning" yourself of your memories, or purging yourself of your past. (Some, as noted earlier, would prefer that you purge yourself of stories of their notorious pasts.) Even so, I have a feeling that Katie's question is one that few of us can really answer, because, for better or worse, we all cling to our stories in one way or another. Sometimes those stories serve us well, sometimes they don't. But most of us, if we're honest, will admit that when all of the blogging and tweeting and commenting and punditry and snarking and sniping and marketing and myth-making are done, when we drag ourselves away from our laptops and TVs and satellite radio and iPhones (assuming that some of us still do that), there really is no single or simple way of interpreting our own stories, to say nothing of anyone else's.
Not that this will ever keep any one of us from trying.
* * * * *
PS ~ Despite all of my going on and on about myself, I haven't forgotten that this is the eighth anniversary of the infamous 9/11 attacks on the US, as the above-mentioned Steve Salerno made note of on SHAMblog. There's an interesting discussion going on there, with some well-written contributions from my own Rev Ron.
** I just love the word "rapscallion" and have been waiting for a chance to use it in a sentence. There, I just did it again.