The Imperfection and Redemption of Ted Kennedy

As Sen. Edward Kennedy was put to rest this weekend, cable news networks filled airtime by exhausting every angle of his life. They waxed poetic about his leadership style, debating who would be the Senate's next "lion." They delved into the history of America's most beloved and, many would argue, most doomed first family. They looked forward, wondering how the senator's death might serve as motivation in the ongoing debate over health-care reform.

There was one topic that every producer and biographer struggled to integrate with the whole: the so-called "Chappaquiddick incident." In July of 1969, a much younger Kennedy drove his car off a bridge, and his passenger, a former campaign worker for the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy named Mary Jo Kopechne, was killed. Ted Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a suspended sentence.

I'm less interested in the incident itself, which indeed is horrific and casts serious doubts on Kennedy's integrity, than I am in the American public's reaction to it -- even to this day. It seems that in the context of an effective, dedicated political leader's life, we don't know how to reconcile flaws in character and plain old personal dysfunction.

Many, including historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, believe that the controversy surrounding this incident created a chasm too big between Kennedy and the U.S. presidency. He would, of course, go on to a nearly 50-year career as a U.S. senator, but he would never be presidential material -- even with that shining Kennedy name.

Sen. Kennedy built an entire career on perseverance. He struggled in the legislative trenches day in and day out. He stuck to his ideals when it came to unpopular votes. There's a chance that he never would have had something to prove, never would have been so committed to his truth, if he hadn't made such a fatal mistake in 1969. As he told 60 Minutes, "I think I've always wanted to try and be a better person." Of course we wish he could have manifested all of these qualities without the loss of a promising young woman's life.

You would think the American public -- so obsessed with stories of redemption in television, film, and literature -- would give leaders more room to change over the course of a lifetime. In fact, it seems that it's liberals who get the least room to grow in the public's imagination. While George W. Bush managed to turn his addictions and high jinks into an evangelical success story, Bill Clinton claimed dumbly that he didn't inhale and was still skewered for it. Kennedy in his younger days sounds like a lot of the assholes I knew while going to Columbia University -- arrogant, sexist, often drunk. I don't have high hopes for many of those classmates to become evolved, ethical leaders, but I wouldn't write any of them off, either. People change, grow up, get sober. (That's not to say Kennedy still didn't have his personal shortcomings, such as defending his nephew against multiple rape charges.)

Kennedy never, in fact, expected perfection from others. Instead, he made cross-party alliances based on a belief that political life is not Camelot but Red Rover. He became, in many ways, the antithesis of the Kennedy hype. He became a man with a truly problematic past and a deep commitment to contributing to the nation nonetheless. As Kay Steiger writes at Jezebel, "Sometimes it's difficult to examine the whole life of a public figure. After all, public figures are human, and humans can't be perfect. Sometimes, they don't even come close."

Give me a fighter over a saint any day. Give me a man or woman who has stared their imperfections in the face, who has seen the other side of great expectations: profound disappointment. Give me a leader who knows that humans are flawed, that social change is messy, and that we do it all, each and every day, anyway. When it comes to health-care reform, give me Ted Kennedy instead of Mother Teresa.

William Faulkner wrote, "All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible." Sen. Kennedy failed in dire ways, especially when it comes to his role in the death of Kopechne. There is no way to right that wrong, no way to erase that loss. But his legacy proves that out of the most tragic of mistakes and errors in judgment, leaders with hard-earned integrity and dedication are born.

For some, the Chappaquiddick incident was a black mark too dark to be forgotten. In fact, Joyce Carol Oates, whose novel Black Water, was inspired by the accident, wrote in the Guardian last week, "This paradox lies at the heart of so much of public life: individuals of dubious character and cruel deeds may redeem themselves in selfless actions. Fidelity to a personal code of morality would seem to fade in significance as the public sphere, like an enormous sun, blinds us to all else."

But what Oates forgets is that writing people off is its own form of blindness. One of the most gracious qualities of humanity is our capacity to change, to forgive, to recover from the most painful of tragedies. It is often the seat of our most transformative wisdom. (Of course men with money, particularly with a Kennedy name, are the most likely to be redeemed. This is another tragedy in itself.) To me, Chappaquiddick need not be forgotten, or even forgiven for that matter, but understood as part of Ted Kennedy's path, part of what made him the leader he became.