Teddy Kennedy’s Long March: Is It Time To Forgive Him?

” There are many things in this incident … which have remained obscure. “

-the French lieutenant in Lord Jim

I’ve been paying attention to Teddy Kennedy again. I’m not sure why, but every now and then I can’t help returning to this remarkable American character. Our Lord Jim.

The immediate cause was the Patients’ Bill of Rights. After writing about it (“End H.M.O. ‘Telephone Triage’: Pass the Patients’ Rights Bill,” June 25), I found myself watching the debate on C-Span 2 day after day for hours and hours, riveted by the tactical maneuvering, the strategic nuances, the subtle feints and dodges of points of order and “poison-pill” amendments. It was a fascinating struggle, and at the center of it all was Teddy Kennedy, one of the bill’s three co-sponsors (along with John McCain and John Edwards) and the chief floor general for the complicated legislative ordeal that led to its eventual Senate passage.

There he was, working his butt off in the trenches hour after tedious, frustrating hour: fending off dilatory and disingenuous Republican amendments, shaping strategy and tactics on the fly, making enough shrewd compromises and adjustments to bring along nine Republican votes and pass the bill, 59-36.

It was an impressive performance-except for the shouting. Or maybe because of the shouting; I’m not sure. But it was Teddy Kennedy’s shouting that had me fixated as the long hours of amending and tabling and debating points of order rolled on and on.

It was baffling, the shouting-so out of place amidst the parliamentary politesse. But the more I think about it, the more I think the shouting may be a clue to the continuing mystery.

No, he wasn’t shouting bombastically all the time. During much of the debate, he clothed his rhetoric in layers of Senatorial courtesy, in low-key graciousness toward his adversaries. It should be noted that, from all indications, this wasn’t a pre-programmed, staff-fed performance: H.M.O. reform is an issue that Senator Kennedy has been doggedly promoting and debating for nearly a decade. (He introduced his first health-care bill as far back as 1970, in fact.) He had the arguments down cold; you could see him, at times, thinking swiftly on his feet, diagnosing the latest curve ball thrown at the bill by the opposition and deciding whether to dodge it or to knock it out of the park.

There was one lovely moment, in fact, in which he displayed a kind of deft, jujitsu-like maneuver, turning on a dime from opposing to embracing a poison-pill amendment, forcing the G.O.P. to swallow the bitter pill themselves.

The G.O.P. strategy in the last days of the debate, when they knew they didn’t have the votes to defeat the bill in the Senate, was to load it up with supposedly well-meaning patient-protection extensions in the transparent hope that the Democrats would not be able to say no to extending these patients’ rights-but that, in saying yes, they’d drive up the cost of the bill sufficiently to give opponents in the House and the White House the rationale to kill it.

And so you had all these G.O.P. Senators weeping copious crocodile tears for the poor and the uninsured; for the federal employees and Medicare recipients not covered by the initial versions of the McCain-Edwards-Kennedy bill; for all the millions of people whose concerns they’d spurned in the decade-long debates over health care.

O the lamentations over the little people excluded from the bill, emanating from these Senators-who, in fact, were opposed to its protections being extended to anyone , when you came right down to it. The cruelty and cynicism of the ploy was outrageous, and at first Senator Kennedy seemed to be responding with the sarcastic derision it deserved.

“We’ll have an opportunity to invite your participation later,” he said to Oklahoma’s G.O.P. Senator Don Nickles, who was sponsoring one such poison-pill amendment. “Our attempts in the past to enlist you on behalf of the uninsured have fallen on deaf ears. I’m taking all of those statements and comments of my Republican friends over the past few days and we’ll give them an opportunity, and hopefully they won’t have to eat their words.” He smirked with relish at just that prospect. “Hopefully they won’t have to eat their words,” he repeated.

And then he suddenly shifted gear, rose above ridicule mode and decided-almost in mid-sentence, it seemed-to make the G.O.P. poison pill a communal meal.

“I would hope, Mr. President-” Senator Kennedy began, then halted and shifted: “Well, I-I’m gonna say, I recommend to our side that we accept this amendment. The Senator [Nickles] made such a convincing argument …, ” he said, with more than a bit of irony, to the sound of surprised laughter on the Senate floor.

The Democratic Majority Whip, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, then smoothly picked up the play and asked a stunned Senator Nickles if he’d agree to a voice vote on his amendment, “since it now appears you’re going to win.”

Clearly nonplused by the unwanted victory thrust upon him, all Senator Nickles could say was “I’ll think about it.” And then, after fumphering around for a while and not finding a way out, he agreed to the vote and the deed was done.

What Senator Kennedy had done, with the concurrence of the bill’s co-sponsors, was to make a savvy risk-benefit calculation about the short-term damage the poison-pill amendment might do to the Patients’ Bill of Rights’ chances for ultimate passage, versus the long-term value of getting cynical Republican Senators on record voting in favor of extending patients’ rights more broadly-when, in fact, they really never wanted to extend those rights to anyone. Calling their bluff, using the cynical negativity of their strategy against them, Senator Kennedy let the poisoners choke on their own pill.

It was an instance of the mastery of the legislative process that he’s worked to command. It was the Good Teddy, the one who’s built up one of the most impressive records of legislative achievement and advocacy in the history of the Senate. It was the Teddy Kennedy who’s become a mensch .

But then there were the outbursts of yelling. Every once in a while, he’d rise to debate a point or respond to a fellow Senator and just let loose with nonstop, unmodulated bellowing . This shouting: I’d grown sort of accustomed to the whole Teddy Kennedy shouting thing from seeing him make speeches at conventions and campaign rallies. It was not Teddy at his best; it was loud, graceless, crude and bombastic, as if he was substituting sheer volume for the kind of charisma and charm his brothers had. It was dumbed-down and, in some respects, condescending to his audience (as if he were saying, “This is the crude kind of thing the unwashed masses respond to”).

Still, when he was speaking-or bellowing-to packed halls filled with partisans, whipping up the faithful even if it seemed over-the-top, it didn’t come off as weird, and in its own way it worked.

But it stood out like a sore thumb on the Senate floor. Not just as a contrast with the other Senators, but as a contrast with himself. Believe me, I’m not a fellow of such tender sensibilities and delicacy that mere decibel level offends me. No, it was more that I was fascinated by his sudden lurching into a dumbed-down, amped-up bozo mode, a buffoonish parody of partisan stridency that hit all the wrong notes at top volume. A parody of himself. It was almost like watching the oratorical equivalent of Tourette’s.

But so what? Why was I so fascinated by these outbursts? Why was I-why are we- still fascinated by Teddy Kennedy?

For me it goes back to June 1968, when the second Kennedy assassination left the third Kennedy brother alone with the tormented family legacy. I’d been a Bobby Kennedy supporter in college, and I know that for a time I’d transferred all the overheated emotions-the hope and despair the Kennedy campaigns and the Kennedy assassinations evoked-onto the all-too-frail shoulders of the unready surviving brother.

A couple of months after the second Kennedy assassination, I’d gone out to the Chicago Democratic convention-slash-riot-my first reporting assignment-and at one point attended a press conference in the besieged Hilton Hotel, where former Ohio governor Mike DiSalle, an old machine pol from Cleveland, announced a draft-Teddy movement. And I found myself swept up in the emotion of the moment, that wild mixture of Kennedy emotions: the thrill of another campaign infused with horror at the prospect of another assassination-the two not unconnected, I suspect.

And a couple of years after that, I covered Teddy’s 1970 Senatorial reelection campaign, the first one after Chappaquiddick. It was the first Kennedy campaign of any kind after the second Kennedy assassination, and the tension of traveling with Teddy Kennedy through the Boston throngs was almost unbearable, with everyone constantly on razor-edge alert for the possibility that some nut would try to complete the hat trick of Kennedy kills. I thought Teddy was both brave and crazy for doing it, that on some level he did it-exposing himself to that very real possibility-as a kind of penitence for his failure on Chappaquiddick.

And then there was the time I spent at Chappaquiddick, and my encounter with the unresolved mysteries of that night. I stepped off the ferry from Edgartown to Chappaquiddick in the summer of 1971, two years after the incident. I had been assigned by Harold Hayes of Esquire to write a kind of mood piece about the aftermath and found myself drawn into the mystery, the unanswered questions, the holes in the story that still haunt Teddy-and that complicate our response to the question of his penitence and redemption.

I’ll get further into the specifics in a bit, but the real fascination of the mysteries of that night is the mystery of Teddy Kennedy’s mind: What does he know about how he behaved in that defining moment that we don’t know, and how has that affected his Lord Jim–like Long March, his grim trudge, his unhappy warrior’s campaign to win back our respect-and his own self-respect?

The ongoing drama of the aftermath, of how Teddy Kennedy would live with the consequences of that night, is one that has become an extended American epic, like one of those tortured 10-hour Eugene O’Neill family sagas about guilt and shame-a “strange interlude” that’s stretched out to three decades now. (This column appears a week before the 30th anniversary of the Chappaquiddick tragedy, on July 18.)

It’s a tortured drama of character and fate, denial and penitence, that raises questions about the possibility of redemption as profound as any in Conrad’s Lord Jim . Watching Teddy Kennedy during the patients’ rights debate, I started rereading Lord Jim for the first time since college. I’d be surprised if no one had made the comparison before, but I can’t recall ever seeing or hearing it. In any case, I found myself struck by the resonances in the Conrad novel-both its eerie similarities and significant differences from Teddy’s saga.

Like Lord Jim , the Teddy Kennedy saga is the story of a single terrible moment, a single failure of nerve, a single bad decision-but one that became a defining moment, a brand, a lens through which he would be looked at for the rest of his life.

And like Lord Jim , it’s not so much the story of that night as the story of its aftermath: the consequences of the search for oblivion and the search for a redemption that is never certain, perhaps never possible.

In the case of Jim, the defining moment was a leap into the sea from the bridge of a ship that seemed about to sink; in the case of Teddy, a plunge off a bridge in a car that sunk. In each case there was a public charge of abandonment, a very public inquest and a vaster public humiliation that would shadow each of them ever after.

But there are instructive differences as well. In the Conrad novel, Jim-at first, anyway- chooses to run. He takes his medicine in the Malay courtroom inquest, then he seeks obscurity in other ports. But every time he is recognized as the man who jumped from the bridge, he cuts out and sails off to an even more obscure port, pursued inexorably by the ghost of the scandal. It isn’t until he’s able to disappear from civilized notice entirely-until he goes off the radar, to use an anachronism, deep in the interior of a virtually impenetrable island kingdom-that he’s able to begin the long, slow, painful process of coming to terms with his failure and rebuilding his identity.

Teddy Kennedy didn’t have that luxury. He had nowhere to run; the surviving patriarch of the Kennedy clan couldn’t go to ground. But to give him credit, he chose not to seek maximum cover. He could have retreated to the private sector, became the reclusive Patriarch of Hyannisport, but he chose to live out the shame and obloquy in the public arena, in the U.S. Capitol.

In the beginning, it was a schizoid quest. There were two distinct Teddys: the Teddy who posed as the custodian of the Kennedy legacy, who invoked the need to “pick up [the] fallen standard,” the flag of his dead brothers-and the Teddy who became a “fallen standard” in the other sense of the phrase, who seemed to seek escape in the oblivion of boozing and womanizing.

But through it all, he stuck it out in the Senate. He gutted it out by surrounding himself with the smartest, slickest staff on Capitol Hill-bright young men and women who carried the weight, carried him through the lost years. He picked his shots carefully, placing his imprimatur (if not his undivided attention) on a solid legislative agenda that saw him fight for the outsiders, the poor and powerless, the ones that Bobby Kennedy had redefined the Kennedy myth to be about.

His brother, tragically, never had time to lend the myth more than gesture and glamour. Teddy gave it the kind of substance that comes from years, from decades of plugging away at issues like health care and civil rights. And now and then there was the electrifying jolt of leadership, as with his early attack on the Bork nomination that galvanized a winning coalition against the judge-on issues, not personality. (It was a crusade that looks better and better in retrospect, as Mr. Bork’s public and written pronouncements get nuttier and nuttier.)

It’s impressive, Teddy’s Senate record, and it hasn’t always been a matter of shrill opposition; he’s painstakingly built bridges to conservative colleagues like Orrin Hatch and shown himself able to forge alliances, even with George W. (on an education bill). In the process, he’s acquired a kind of senior-statesman gravitas and a growing (if grudging) respect among all but the die-hard Kennedy haters in the capital and the culture.

And in the past few years, there’s growing evidence that his new marriage and perhaps his age have tamed the demons that would drive him to drag his nephew out to places like Palm Beach’s Au Bar, where the old Joe Kennedy ugliness would break out again and ruin the lives of those who, unlike the Kennedys, can’t buy their way out of trouble.

Yes, there are still some weird rough edges to the Senator. I think the shouting, the bellowing, is a symptom of that-an outbreak of the tumult that still roils the waters of his psyche. For one thing, people haven’t let him forget about Chappaquiddick. On Friday, July 6, callers to the Fox News morning show offered the theory that the Chandra Levy case was “just like Chappaquiddick: The girlfriend was pregnant and had to be disposed of.” There’s no evidence for such a creepy theory, but-and here’s another key difference with Conrad’s character-in the case of Jim, we know what happened on the bridge that fateful night. In the case of Teddy, we still don’t.

In the case of Jim, we know what was going through his mind when he made the decision to jump: He hoped to end his life on his own terms, before the catastrophic sinking of the ship he mistakenly thought was inevitable and imminent killed him in a way beyond his control. But he had the misfortune to jump into the lifeboat that the cowardly ship’s captain and his chief officers were using to sneak off and save themselves-leaving the pilgrim passengers to fend for themselves. The world mistook Jim’s leap for cowardly abandonment, put him morally in the same boat, so to speak, as the absconders. And he put himself there, in the same boat, in his own tormented conscience.

With Teddy, on the other hand, we still don’t know what happened on that bridge. Nor do we know how deep the pit is that his ongoing penitence must pull him up and out of. We don’t know how much to blame him; we don’t know how much he blames himself.

The official story-the one he pled to, the one he apologized publicly for-is bad enough: negligent driving, leaving the scene of an accident with a passenger (perhaps still alive) trapped within a sinking car. And failing to report it at all for nine hours after.

But the unofficial story is worse. I began to see the gaps, the holes in the official story that summer on Chappaquiddick, two years after the accident. From talking to the diver who dragged Mary Jo Kopechne from the car, to the undertaker who prepped her body, to the sheriff, the D.A., the police deputies and investigators.

I wasn’t the first, of course. Many more thorough and persistent investigators-Robert Sherrill and Jack Olsen, in particular-poked big holes in Teddy’s account.

It’s fairly clear that he sought at first to escape not just responsibility, but to cover up any connection to the accident and the death: to leave some Kennedy family retainer holding the bag, establish an alibi presence in his hotel across from Chappaquiddick in Edgartown, and act surprised and shocked when he learned of the death the next morning. He came close to admitting this initial plan in his televised pleas to Massachusetts voters the night after he entered the plea bargain that got him off the hook, with nothing more than a suspended sentence for “leaving the scene.” It was there in those cryptic words he inserted in the speech as a preemptive explanation just in case the ugly truth leaked out:

“All kinds of scrambled thoughts-all of them confused, some of them irrational, many of which I cannot recall [then how did you know you had them?], and some of which I would not have seriously entertained under normal circumstances-went through my mind during this period.”

It’s a classically Nixonian Kennedy statement, one that strikes just the note that Nixon did in his memoirs when he gingerly anticipated future taped revelations by saying, “I entertained all sorts of crazy ideas, thinking out loud.”

Does Teddy Kennedy still owe us the whole truth, or is the exemplary Senate career he’s carved out for himself sufficient penance for his unconfessed sins? Can unconfessed crimes ever be expiated? Does it matter that he’ll probably never tell the full story of that night and the death of that young woman? Is it possible that his motive for refusing to do so was not just to protect himself, but to shield the reputation of the dead girl? (I might have to devote an entire column to the implications of alternate Chappaquiddick theories.)

As always when thinking about the Kennedys, “all kinds of scrambled thoughts-all of them confused, some of them irrational”-go through my mind. I can’t help admiring the cumulative achievement of Teddy’s post-Chappaquiddick Senatorial career. But the investigative reporter in me-and the aficionado of Joseph Conrad-still wants to know what really happened that night.