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.]


  1. Mark, Kathleen directed me to this commentary. It gave me goose bumps. Beautiful written and so poignant. Thank you.

  2. I think Kennedy long before his death reconciled the "what might have been" syndrome. He was content with what was. He left a remarkable record of legislative achievement, on a par with the two greatest legislators in U.S. history, James Madison and Lyndon Johnson. He left a legacy of great speeches. And he left a legacy of people serving in government who got their starts in his office, including a current Supreme Court justice.

    Had he been president, what more could he have done?


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