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Teddy Kennedy's Memoir: He Spent His Life Atoning for Kopechne's Death

5 years ago
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"Atonement is a process that never ends.'' – Edward M. Kennedy in his forthcoming memoir, "True Compass.''

Even the quick summary of Teddy Kennedy's new memoir in Thursday's New York Times contains about 12 different headlines. But because we all, like the book's author, are only human, the absolute top of the news from the 532-page tome is that Kennedy says he barely knew poor Mary Jo Kopechne, and had not been carrying on with her on the night she died, or any other time.

As the whole world knows, Kopechne, who had been an aide to his late brother Bobby, died after Kennedy drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island with her in the car in 1969. He then waited nine hours to report the accident. According to the Times, which obtained a copy of Kennedy's book ahead of its mid-September pub date, he spent the rest of his life atoning for that "inexcusable'' act, and subsequent failure to act. What's more, he apparently blamed himself for his father's death, believing that the "terrible decisions'' he made at Chappaquiddick had hastened it.

The Times piece says Kennedy's book, already a best seller, "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.'' Since he's 'fessing up to so much, I don't know why he'd lie about his relationship with Kopechne, though others will doubtless come up with a full array of possibilities.

"I have enjoyed the company of women,'' Kennedy wrote. "I have enjoyed a stiff drink or two or three, and I've relished the smooth taste of a good wine. At times, I've enjoyed these pleasures too much. I've heard the tales about my exploits as a hell-raiser -- some accurate, some with a wisp of truth to them and some so outrageous that I can't imagine how anyone could really believe them."

Anyone who wondered why Jimmy Carter looked like he would rather have been busting rocks than attending Kennedy's funeral Mass last Saturday -- and not because he was overwhelmed by grief -- will want to check out what sounds like a shockingly honest account of Kennedy and Carter's "unhealthy'' relationship, which according to Kennedy broke down over – wait for it – health care reform. "Clearly President Carter was a difficult man to convince -- of anything," Kennedy wrote. "One reason for this was that he did not really listen." Carter, of course, was the incumbent when Kennedy challenged him in the presidential primary in 1980. Kennedy said that after Carter's "malaise'' speech, he realized that the two of them held completely different views of America.

Kennedy also seems to have at one point told Bill Clinton that he didn't deserve to be president if he couldn't make health care reform happen; had he lived, would he have had reason to tell Barack Obama the same?

Perhaps self-servingly, he suggests that President Kennedy was wearying of our involvement in Vietnam and would have gotten us out of that war had he lived. And he describes a secret meeting between Bobby Kennedy and LBJ in 1967. Bobby offered to personally broker a peace with the North Vietnamese – an effort that would have kept him out of the 1968 presidential race -- but Johnson didn't trust him to keep his word, according to Kennedy's account, and didn't take him up on the offer.

Kennedy said he fully accepted the Warren Commission's conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in the assassination of his brother John. Yet he had other worries: Bobby took the loss of their brother so hard that he feared for him; the situation "veered close to being a tragedy within a tragedy,'' he wrote.

And after Bobby, too, was shot and killed, he himself found it hard to function or concentrate on his work – and as a result spent endless hours sailing, drinking to excess, and behaving in ways that deeply hurt his wife Joan. For a long time after the shootings, he jumped at loud noises, and drove himself and his staff too hard in an effort to "stay ahead of the darkness.''

Yet he also wrote a letter to the Los Angeles district attorney, asking that he not seek the death penalty for Bobby's killer, Sirhan Sirhan.

Will those who have done an Irish jig on Kennedy's grave show him some of that same compassion now? Will those who have argued that he lacked any remorse for his behavior at Chappaquiddick rethink that at all? After all, as Kennedy wrote, just because we make a mistake does not mean we have to keep repeating it. "Some people make mistakes and try to learn from them and do better,'' he wrote in the book, which I personally cannot wait to lay my hands on. "Our sins don't define the whole picture of who we are."
Filed Under: Woman Up
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