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Tragedy, scandal, and a will to persevere

For many of those mourning Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, what gives special meaning to his life is not only his legislative accomplishments but his resolve through a lifetime of headlines and hardship.

August 29, 2009|Janet Hook

WASHINGTON — For many of those mourning Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) during his funeral and burial today, what gives special meaning to his life is not only his record of legislative accomplishments but his perseverance through a lifetime of scandal and hardship.

For others, however, no record of achievement will compensate for Kennedy's mistakes and personal failings.

The 1969 Chappaquiddick episode -- in which he fled the scene after his car went off a bridge, carrying Mary Jo Kopechne to her death -- was arguably the most unforgivable of the blemishes on his career.

Perhaps more than for any current figure on the political stage, "people have their minds made up about Ted Kennedy," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, who has written a book on political scandals.

Few dispute that although Kennedy never fully overcame his weaknesses, he didn't stop trying to achieve important goals in spite of them.

Kennedy was overshadowed and undervalued early on in comparison with his older brothers.

And more than once, his personal problems hobbled his efforts at public service.

"You can think of at least five points in his career when he could have quit," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who has worked with Kennedy over the years: Chappaquiddick, the 1964 plane crash that nearly killed him and left a legacy of chronic back pain, a failed presidential bid in 1980, revelations of drunken carousing that emerged from the 1991 rape trial of his nephew.

Then there were the tragedies -- the assassinations of his two brothers, the cancer that two of his children battled, and the death of his nephew, John F. Kennedy Jr., in a plane crash.

Even as Kennedy pressed on with his Senate career, he never escaped from himself.

A decade after it happened, Chappaquiddick undercut Kennedy's 1980 fight with incumbent Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The day after Kennedy died -- 40 years after Chappaquiddick -- one of the hottest topics searched on Google was "Mary Jo Kopechne."

Conservative talk-show hosts, bloggers and activists showed little restraint in resurrecting the event.

"Perhaps Kennedy's major accomplishment was escaping indictment for manslaughter over the Kopechne affair, thanks to his family's connections," said conservative lawyer Larry Klayman.

Hadley Arkes, a professor of jurisprudence at Amherst College, wrote in the conservative National Review Online that Chappaquiddick "must mark his character forever."

"The crisis over Kopechne was entirely about himself: his layers of negligence, his utter absorption in his own interests, and saving his public position," Arkes wrote.

The negative judgments only hardened after the 1991 incident at his family's Palm Beach, Fla., compound that led to the rape trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith.

Trial testimony described the senator waking his son and nephew to go drinking in the middle of the night.

A young woman who had joined the group in a bar and returned to the compound lodged the rape charge against Smith.

Smith was acquitted, but Kennedy's approval rating in the Gallup poll plummeted to 22% and he was forced to sit out a major debate he might otherwise have dominated: the questioning of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings over allegations of sexual harassment leveled by Anita Hill.

It was a five-alarm political fire, and past time for Kennedy to acknowledge his personal failings with fresh candor.

"I am painfully aware that the criticism directed at me in recent months involves far more than honest disagreements with my position," Kennedy said in a speech at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

In 1992 he remarried, to Washington lawyer Victoria Reggie, and his new wife was widely credited with helping Kennedy achieve a more settled, sober life.

When he ran for reelection in 1994, he faced a tough challenge by Republican Mitt Romney, later governor of Massachusetts, who was buoyed by questions about the senator's judgment and by a strong anti-Democratic political tide.

Kennedy won by the narrowest majority of his Senate career, but he still drew 58% of the vote.

That helped him make his final years in the Senate among his most productive on the issues dearest to him, such as health and education.

And his record in the Senate, and his ability to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans, brought a measure of forgiveness there.

GOP stalwarts John McCain of Arizona and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, for example, both spoke at the memorial service for Kennedy in Boston on Friday night

"Working in his Senate office, I was always struck by the contrast between the passionate Kennedy haters on the conservative Republican side, and how much affection, trust and confidence that so many of his Republican colleagues had," said Bill Carrick, a longtime Kennedy advisor.

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janet.hook@latimes.com

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