Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy: A Lesson From the Presidency That Could Have Been

As I write these words, the world has just learned that Senator Ted Kennedy has died. Whatever one thinks of the late Senator's politics, all will agree that he was a major figure in American politics over the last half-century, and that his passing is a moment to show respect for a great public servant.

I'll go along with all of that. As it happens, I agree with much of Senator Kennedy's politics, so his passing means that much more to me. However, I bring up his passing here for another reason, a reason that is every bit as much personally relevant to you, the reader, as it is to me.

We'll read a lot over the next few days about the great Senator that Ted Kennedy was. However, we should also consider the great President that he might have been. Kennedy's Presidency­-that-wasn­'t, and the personal choices that derailed that Presidency, carry an important lesson for each of us.

I was a very young man in the summer of 1969. It was an almost surreal summer, with its constellation of watershed events of cultural and even cosmic significance, all of which I followed eagerly as I read the Rocky Mountain News and watched Walter Cronkite on television while visiting with my uncle's family in Denver. This was the summer of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, the summer of the Charles Manson murder spree, the summer of Woodstock--and the summer of Chappaquiddick.

The broad details of the Chappaquiddick incident are well known. Senator (yes, even then, Senator) Kennedy was attending a reunion party for some of the female workers on his late brother's presidential campaign. (Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated over a year earlier, during this campaign.) Other men were in attendance at the party as well. As Kennedy later reported it, shortly before midnight, one of the women, Mary Jo Kopechne, asked him to drive her back to her hotel. On the way, Kennedy drove off a bridge; he escaped the car, while she did not. Kennedy did not report the incident until Ms. Kopechne's body was discovered, late the next morning.

There have been unanswered questions for many years about many aspects of this incident--but this is not the place to go into them. I would rather dwell on another aspect of this tragic incident. In doing this, I mean no slight to Ms. Kopechne or her memory. However, there are other issues to consider here, issues usually ignored.

Most commentators agree that the incident at Chappaquiddick ended Ted Kennedy's presidential ambitions. At the very least, Kennedy made a monumental error in judgment in not contacting the authorities immediately after he drove off the bridge into the water.

But what if he hadn't?

What if he had known better than to even put himself, a 37-year-old married man, in a car alone, late at night, with a 29-year-old single woman?

Beyond that, what if he'd reported the accident immediately--thereby possibly saving Ms. Kopechne's life, and definitely showing his willingness to risk his reputation to try to do so?

We just might have had a President Ted Kennedy in 1972, instead of the second presidential term of Richard Nixon. A Kennedy presidency at this time might have ended the Vietnam War years sooner, saving hundreds or thousands of American lives. A President Ted Kennedy might have given us an enlightened energy policy back in the Seventies, when the oil embargo of 1973 demonstrated conclusively the dangers of America depending on foreign-supplied fossil fuels.

Perhaps even more intriguing, we might have elected a President Ted Kennedy in 1980. (In real life, Ted Kennedy lost the Democratic nomination to Jimmy Carter in 1980.) We might have avoided the Reagan years and the first Bush Presidency altogether, along with the legacy of those years: the disastrous consequences for education, the environment, civil rights, foreign policy, the rule of law, and the national deficit (remember 'Star Wars'? and I don't mean the movie).

But we didn't get that. Instead, a few seemingly minor personal choices affected the course of American history, and arguably the history of the world.

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote that
For of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest are these:
"It might have been."

And so it is. Both the Rocky Mountain News and Walter Cronkite have passed into history, and now so has Senator Ted Kennedy. We shall never know what a Ted Kennedy Presidency would have accomplished. However, we can know this:
At some time, each of us will face what I will forever after call "Kennedy's choice": a seemingly minor personal choice where a lapse of good judgment can have far-reaching consequences, consequences that can change one's life--maybe many lives.

What if everyone behaved as if their choices could affect history? Sure, we might have some interesting stories disappear from our lives. However, overall, we would avoid oceans of heartbreak and missed opportunity. Beyond that, our power to contribute to our own success, to the prosperity and well-being of our communities, even to our nation and world, would be vastly increased.

We need to have the perspective that our lives are not our own. Some in the world would have us believe that our life is nothing but an opportunity for personal pleasure, personal enjoyment. We need a higher perspective here. I would submit to you that each of us has received our life in stewardship, an opportunity to do the most possible to improve the world in which we are placed. From this perspective, we just don't do things that could impede our ability to be useful, to ourselves, to our families, to our communities, to our world, to all the people who do or could depend on us--now or some day--to help them, even if that help is just to give them a good example.

So that's the lesson that I propose we consider taking within ourselves on this sad day. Do the right thing. Act with integrity, in things large and small. Act in private with the same values we would have if our behavior were broadcast to the Jumbotron in Times Square. Be the same person when we are alone that we are in public. Avoid even the appearance of impropriety. It's about integrity; it's about character.

I will miss Senator Kennedy. I mourn his passing; I admire him for the kind of man he ultimately became. But I cannot help but be haunted by what might have been. That's a lesson I want to apply to my own life for a long, long time.

The post is an elaboration of a comment that I made on The Huffington Post today. Read the Article at HuffingtonPost.

[The image of the late Senator Kennedy is in the public domain, and was obtained from Wikipedia.]

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Annals of Well-Used Lives, I: Michelle Kwan Chooses Grad School Over Olympics

Michelle Kwan, nine times U. S. Figure Skating champion, twice an Olympic medalist (silver and bronze), announced on Friday, July 31, that she was passing on preparing this fall for the Winter Olympics, and instead would enter graduate school. (Read about it here and here.) Nancy Armour's article for the Associated Press quoted Kwan as stating the following:

Skating will always be a part of me .... But in the bigger picture of my life, I have always wanted to find a career that will allow me to make a positive contribution and difference in the world.

Kwan begins a masters degree in international affairs at Tufts University in the Fall. For the last three years, she has served as a U.S. public diplomacy envoy on the behalf of the State Department, and this experience seems to have encouraged her to move in this direction.

Yes, I know that the cynics out there will say that Kwan, who has suffered injuries in recent years and is now 29 years old, might have looked at her Olympic chances and considered them a long shot anyway. I prefer to take her at her word. Either way, though, let's give some thought to this act and its meaning, not for Kwan, but for America.

As a society, American culture is obsessed with professional sports (and, make no mistake about it, the Olympics are essentially professional sports under certain restrictions). To judge from the media, it has occured to very few people to point out that very little of any lasting value has resulted from the world of professional sports.

Oh, sure, the people who participate in professional sports can become fabulously wealthy, and some of those who've done so have done good and charitable things with their wealth--more power to them. However, truth be told, Americans aren't remotely as concerned with sports figures' charitable activities as they are with their athletic performance.

And we so love to watch those performances, don't we?

Whether it's the weekly ball games, or national or world competitions, or the weeks of Olympic competition, we love to watch those performances. We identify with the athletes; their victories are our victories, their pain our own.

But what difference does any of this make, at all?

Is one sick child made well by a goal or a block? Is our community any closer to fixing poverty because someone did the breaststroke in record time? Does even the most breathtaking, run-up-the-wall-and-jump catch, deep in the outfield, do a thing to better education or literacy, anywhere in the world?

Of course not. It's not supposed to. It's essentially entertainment for the spectators, and a massive paycheck plus the achievement of a personal goal for the athlete. And that's it.

Few have been better at their sport than Michelle Kwan is at hers. But now she wants her life to make a difference. Implicitly, she is stating that her athletic pursuits really were not making a difference in the world. And they weren't!

The spotlight will be off Michelle Kwan now. Nobody gives endorsement money for international relations. There's no standing on the podium while they play your national anthem and give you a medal, no matter how well you handle a diplomatic crisis. There's no stadium watching as you try to achieve peace and prosperity in a troubled world.

But somewhere, inside, I think she'll experience the satisfaction that comes of knowing that you've tried to leave the world a better place than when you found it. Years from now, when she is an accomplished diplomat with some achievements under her belt, I hope that she tours the schools of America and tells the story of how the athletic hero walked away from it all, to really make a difference. Directing your life to a greater purpose: it's a lesson that a lot of children need to hear.

A lot of adults, too.

Michelle Kwan's choice to make a difference is definitely On the Mark.

[The image of Michelle Kwan performing her signature spiral at a practice session of the 2002 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles was taken on January 8, 2002 by Kevin Rushforth, who has made it available for use here through the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License. The image was obtained through Wikipedia.]