Mary Jo.

by matttbastard

Amid the overwhelming coverage surrounding the historic passing of Sen. Ted Kennedy, one important name from his past has either been reduced to a footnote or, far too often, ignored completely: Mary Jo Kopechne, the civil rights activist and Kennedy aide who perished in a now-infamous 1969 car accident in Chappaquiddick, ME when a besotted Kennedy crashed his car into the ocean. The controversy surrounding these events would follow Kennedy throughout his career.

Melissa Lasky gives the 411:

Mary Jo wasn’t a right-wing talking point or a negative campaign slogan. She was a dedicated civil rights activist and political talent with a bright future — granted, whenever someone dies young, people sermonize about how he had a “bright future” ahead of him — but she actually did. She wasn’t afraid to defy convention (28 and unmarried, oh the horror!) or create her own career path based on her talents. She lived in Georgetown (where I grew up) and loved the Red Sox (we’ll forgive her for that). Then she got in a car driven by a 36-year-old senator with an alcohol problem and a cauldron full of demons, and wound up a controversial footnote in a dynasty.

We don’t know how much Kennedy was affected by her death, or what she’d have thought about arguably being a catalyst for the most successful Senate career in history. What we don’t know, as always, could fill a Metrodome.

Liss tries to balance the deserved accolades Kennedy has received for his lifelong work serving his constituents and the US with his despicable actions on that fateful day:

I suspect that Teddy, who knew himself well and could stare his flaws in the face, who carried the shame of his misdeeds in the furrow of his brow that never totally lightened even with a smile, also felt burdened by his own abuses of the privilege he knew he hadn’t earned. It was there; he couldn’t help himself using it, even when he knew he shouldn’t have. And it hung on him, as well it should have.

He’d made a terrible bargain with himself, too.

Teddy’s legacy, then, is complicated. A man of privilege, who used it cynically for his own benefit. A man of privilege, who used it generously to try to change the world. And maybe to salve his own conscience. Even as he believed fervently in the genuine rightness of his endeavors—and certainly would have, even if there wasn’t a scale to balance.

I have no tidy conclusion. It is what it is.

Daisy is far less charitable:

Sorry my dear liberal brothers and sisters, I respectfully sit this one out. Women first.

Further, as an alcoholic, I will not mourn a rich drunk allowed to make a deadly mistake and carry on as if nothing had happened.

I will mourn the working woman who was forgotten, as the actual circumstances of her death were covered up by a powerful family, who then arbitrarily assigned her slut status.

Imagine slowly, slowly drowning, water enveloping you inch by inch as you drown, waiting for the person to rescue you that never arrives.

Sorry, folks. Some things, I do not excuse.

Mary Jo represents all the nobody-women killed (or allowed to die, if you want to quibble over my terms) by all the powerful, rich men, because they were “evidence”–because they got in the way.

During this orgy of remembrance and sentimentality, of course, we won’t be hearing about her…once again, it will be considered somehow “rude” to mention Mary Jo Kopechne’s suspicious and untimely death. Well, let me be RUDE, then, and remind everyone that she existed. That she was a beautiful and lively woman, cherished by family and friends; she was a human being that was considered expendable by the Kennedy clan.

FUCK Ted Kennedy. Purgatory is hot, and he’ll be there awhile.

How this unresolved incident should affect the way we consider his legacy is, as noted by Will Bunch and myself, a difficult question that historians will likely struggle with for some time to come. Kennedy’s undeniably laudable accomplishments should not be allowed to mitigate his responsibility for and the subsequent irresponsibility and lack of accountability displayed following the death of Kopechne. That said, I’m not comfortable discounting a lifetime of tireless social justice advocacy and impactful legislating, no matter how horrible his actions were (should we solely refer to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson as racist slave owners, or Sen. Robert Byrd as a former KKK member at the expense of the overall historical record?)

Ultimately, like most truly great (though not necessarily morally upright) historical figures, an accurate summation of Sen. Kennedy’s life must take all aspects into account, even those we’d prefer to avoid; indeed, to merely indulge in hagiography does an unforgiveable disservice to both Kopechne’s memory and Kennedy’s.

Update: Welcome Feministing readers! Make sure to check out the latest thoughtful posts on Kennedy and Kopechne from Daisy and Bunch (much thanks for the linkage & kind words). [links corrected — mea culpa, is late.]

Recommend this post at Progressive Bloggers

9 thoughts on “Mary Jo.

  1. I don’t see anyone forgetting Mary Jo Kopechne – Kopechne’s name and memory have been invoked in the past three days more often than any time in the past 25 years. Daisy’s blog is over the line. Ted Kennedy did much good for many people and that deserves our respect when so many people with his priviledges and without his failings or the burden of tragedy heaped upon his family did so much less. It doesn’t excuse or absolve or in any way make up for Kennedy’s responsibility for Mary Jo Kopechne’s death. But as moral, progressive people, we have a responsibility not just to work for change but accept the vast contradictions within us all. Ted Kennedy deserves to be remembered as the man that killed Mary Jo Kopechne by (most likely) driving drunk. He also deserves to be remembered as a man who did more good for his fellow citizens than possibly any other US politician of the 20th century. Paper saints and cardboard villains serve no one. Any attempt to inter the good Ted Kennedy did with his bones should be as forcefully resisted as any attempt to canonize this great and greatly flawed man.


  2. I don’t actually think anyone else gets to make that call, on whether to remember Ted Kennedy for the harm he did, to more than one woman, or not. You get to feel about it how you want, but you don’t get to tell Daisy or anyone else what to weigh or not weigh. It wasn’t just his driving drunk, so you know – it was his not only leaving the scene without trying to help her out of the car, but not calling for any help which could have saved her, too.

    I don’t think anyone gets to say “you must remember and credit Jefferson for all the good he did instead of “only” referring to him as a slave owner/rapist” either.

    Letting someone die to save your own ass (Mary Jo)- isn’t that negligent homicide or something by the way? – and participating in a system that caused unfathomable harm to millions (slavery) are not things classifiable as “only”s, either.

    Why am I to “only” factor in the good Kennedy and Jefferson did with the bad, instead of taking into account the much, much larger good that could have come from any/all of the lives each man ruined or ended? How do you weigh the full import of those losses against what these single men did in their life times anyway?

    If they are to get full credit for the good they did, they should get full credit for the harms, and pretending that there is even CLOSE to a balance between those two things is an obscene underestimation of harms done.


  3. A well-wrtitten coherent picece.

    I purport that the model for journalists to break the mold of mindless objectivity is to be passionate about ideas and core principles — but to keep a jaundiced eye upon individual politicians and their parties. What better proof than Edward Moore Kennedy, deeply flawed champion of worthy causes?


  4. I’m with the first commenter: Chappaquidick was brought up over and over and over again just after Senator Kennedy died. Yes, it was a horrible, horrible thing he did. Yes, he was wrong. Yes, Mary Jo Kopechne deserved better.

    But consider what America would look like right now if Ted Kennedy had not been in the Senate:

    – no Americans with Disabilities Act

    – no Family Medical Leave Act

    – Associate Justice Robert Bork on the Supreme Court, which means Roe v. Wade and quite possibly Griswold v. Connecticut overturned

    – the Contract with America passed in a form much closer to Newt Gingrich’s original intent

    – ditto the Reagan Revolution, which included items such as the end of Title IX and the significant weakening of the Voting Rights Act

    – no SCHIP

    – no HIPAA

    – no COBRA

    – no anti-apartheid legislation in the 1980s

    – no grief counseling or healthcare for 9/11 victims and their families

    – no Ryan White AIDS legislation

    So yes. Ted Kennedy was in many ways a rat of a human being, no question. But would we really be better off without him in the Senate for the last half century?


  5. [T]he model for journalists to break the mold of mindless objectivity is to be passionate about ideas and core principles — but to keep a jaundiced eye upon individual politicians and their parties.

    Seconded. One can be an ideological partisan and still remain an honest broker. I appreciate the transparency afforded by openly ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ news sources (ideally balanced with a healthy skepticism for both those who wield power and the institutions they serve) far more than superficial he said/she said stenography.


  6. But would we really be better off without him in the Senate for the last half century?

    Without him? Are you honestly telling me he couldn’t have been re-elected after serving time? IN MASSACHUSETTS? A Kennedy? Just like Marion Berry, wouldn’t matter to them, they’d still vote for him. A couple of years would have sobered him up and been good for him.

    And just think: He might even have done MORE after actually living among the poor for awhile.


  7. And maybe, as a properly-chastised and sober alcoholic, he wouldn’t have testified in defense of his rapist-nephew, William Kennedy Smith. And might have convinced his family NOT to pay for the services of Roy Black, one of the most expensive criminal defense attorneys IN THE WORLD, to get him off.

    As it is, the rapist went free, and has continued to sexually assault women.

    In fact, if Kennedy hadn’t talked Smith into going out drinking on Good Friday, the whole thing might not have happened.

    And let’s see, what else, Joan Kennedy might have retained some sanity.

    So, see, I can play too.


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