To liberals, Mary Jo Kopechne was dispensable

(Note, see, below, some complimentary facts about Mark Steyn.)

I have not been following the liberal media on the death of Edward Kennedy, but Mark Steyn has, and some of the things they’re saying are, even to me, deeply shocking. I’ve bolded the worst liberal remarks that Steyn quotes in his column. However, while Steyn’s piece is good and has some real zingers (he even makes a musical comedy reference that works for once instead of making him sound hopelessly lightweight), it runs on too long in spots and loses its edge. So, as a special service to VFR readers, I’ve abridged it a bit.

Friday, August 28, 2009
Mark Steyn: Things only a Kennedy could get away with
And by not calling his bluff on Chappaquiddick, Americans became complicit in it.

… In its coverage of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s passing, America’s TV networks are creepily reminiscent of those plays Sam Shepard used to write about some dysfunctional inbred hardscrabble Appalachian household where there’s a baby buried in the backyard but everyone agreed years ago never to mention it.

In this case, the unmentionable corpse is Mary Jo Kopechne, 1940-1969. If you have to bring up the, ah, circumstances of that year of decease, keep it general, keep it vague. As Kennedy flack Ted Sorensen put it in Time magazine:

“Both a plane crash in Massachusetts in 1964 and the ugly automobile accident on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969 almost cost him his life …”

That’s the way to do it! An “accident,” “ugly” in some unspecified way, just happened to happen—and only to him, nobody else. Ted’s the star, and there’s no room to namecheck the bit players. What befell him was … a thing, a place. As Joan Vennochi wrote in The Boston Globe:

“Like all figures in history—and like those in the Bible, for that matter—Kennedy came with flaws. Moses had a temper. Peter betrayed Jesus. Kennedy had Chappaquiddick, a moment of tremendous moral collapse.”

Actually, Peter denied Jesus, rather than “betrayed” him, but close enough for Catholic-lite Massachusetts. And if Moses having a temper never led him to leave some gal at the bottom of the Red Sea, well, let’s face it, he doesn’t have Ted’s tremendous legislative legacy, does he? Perhaps it’s kinder simply to airbrush out of the record the name of the unfortunate complicating factor on the receiving end of that moment of “tremendous moral collapse.” When Kennedy cheerleaders do get around to mentioning her, it’s usually to add insult to fatal injury. As Teddy’s biographer Adam Clymer wrote, Edward Kennedy’s “achievements as a senator have towered over his time, changing the lives of far more Americans than remember the name Mary Jo Kopechne.”

You can’t make an omelet without breaking chicks, right? I don’t know how many lives the senator changed—he certainly changed Mary Jo’s—but you’re struck less by the precise arithmetic than by the basic equation: How many changed lives justify leaving a human being struggling for breath for up to five hours pressed up against the window in a small, shrinking air pocket in Teddy’s Oldsmobile? If the senator had managed to change the lives of even more Americans, would it have been OK to leave a couple more broads down there? Hey, why not? At the Huffington Post, Melissa Lafsky mused on what Mary Jo “would have thought about arguably being a catalyst for the most successful Senate career in history … Who knows—maybe she’d feel it was worth it.” What true-believing liberal lass wouldn’t be honored to be dispatched by that death panel?

We are all flawed, and most of us are weak, and in hellish moments, at a split-second’s notice, confronting the choice that will define us ever after, many of us will fail the test. Perhaps Mary Jo could have been saved; perhaps she would have died anyway. What is true is that Edward Kennedy made her death a certainty. When a man (if you’ll forgive the expression) confronts the truth of what he has done, what does honor require? Six years before Chappaquiddick, in the wake of Britain’s comparatively very minor “Profumo scandal,” the eponymous John Profumo, Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for War, resigned from the House of Commons and the Queen’s Privy Council and disappeared amid the tenements of the East End to do good works washing dishes and helping with children’s playgroups, in anonymity, for the last 40 years of his life. With the exception of one newspaper article to mark the centenary of his charitable mission, he never uttered another word in public again.

Ted Kennedy went a different route. He got kitted out with a neck brace and went on TV and announced the invention of the “Kennedy curse,” a concept that yoked him to his murdered brothers as a fellow victim—and not, as Mary Jo perhaps realized in those final hours, the perpetrator. He dared us to call his bluff, and, when we didn’t, he made all of us complicit in what he’d done. We are all prey to human frailty, but few of us get to inflict ours on an entire nation.

His defenders would argue that he redeemed himself with his “progressive” agenda, up to and including health care “reform.” It was an odd kind of “redemption”: In a cooing paean to the senator on a cringe-makingly obsequious edition of NPR’s “Diane Rehm Show,” Edward Klein of Newsweek fondly recalled that one of Ted’s “favorite topics of humor was, indeed, Chappaquiddick itself. He would ask people, “Have you heard any new jokes about Chappaquiddick?”” …

When a man is capable of what Ted Kennedy did that night in 1969 and in the weeks afterward, what else is he capable of? An NPR listener said the senator’s passing marked “the end of civility in the U.S. Congress.” Yes, indeed. Who among us does not mourn the lost “civility” of the 1987 Supreme Court hearings? Considering the nomination of Judge Bork, Ted Kennedy rose on the Senate floor and announced that “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit down at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution.”

… If you had to identify a single speech that marked “the end of civility” in American politics, that’s a shoo-in.

If a towering giant cares so much about humanity in general, why get hung up on his carelessness with humans in particular? For Kennedy’s comrades, the cost was worth it…. Did he truly believe, as surely as Melissa Lafsky and Co. do, that his indispensability to the republic trumped all else? That Camelot—that “fleeting wisp of glory,” that “one brief shining moment”—must run forever, even if “How To Handle A Woman” gets dropped from the score. The senator’s actions in the hours and days after emerging from that pond tell us something ugly about Kennedy the man. That he got away with it tells us something ugly about American public life.

- end of initial entry -

Scott B. writes from England:

You’re so right that Steyn (apart from any other objections one might have to him) really needs a good editor. So many Steyn articles have half a dozen brilliantly written (again, leaving aside the content) paragraphs, but then have verbose passages that make your eyes glaze over as you try to make sense of them, along with overdone puns and misjudged humour. Having said that, I thought the column you posted was one of his strongest in a while, and the only part I would have excised would have been this wholly unnecessary interlude:

Terrific! Who was that lady I saw you with last night?

Beats me!

Why did the Last Lion cross the road?

To sleep it off!

What do you call 200 Kennedy sycophants at the bottom of a Chappaquiddick pond? A great start, but bad news for NPR guest-bookers! “He was a guy’s guy,” chortled Edward Klein. Which is one way of putting it.

LA replies:

You’re right, thank you.

The passage you quote was particularly senseless. If, as you suggest, this kind of dead weight in his articles is typical, that to me is a further indication of Steyn’s unseriousness. Basically he’s just yucking it up, and he can’t tell the difference between good and trash. Some of it works, some doesn’t, and it’s all the same to him. What I’m saying is: deep inside, he doesn’t care. And that attitude manifests both in the senselessly indulgent jokey passages in his writings that you refer to, and in his outrageously cavalier treatment of substantive issues.

Scott B. replies
I do think that many of Steyn’s articles are undermined by his congenital jocularity, but I don’t think that this is proof of his fundamental unseriousness.

This is a guy, after all, who got dropped by two of the most prestigous and highest paying jobs in British journalism (the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator) after they got taken over by business interests with close financial ties to the Saudi Royal Family. I don’t know the precise facts in the case, but many people on the blogosphere concluded that his being dropped was a direct result of an (excellent) article that Prince Bandar (a vociferous critic of Steyn in Britain) said he found particularly objectionable.

There are many “unserious” journalists who would have reached a compromise in order to save their careers in such circumstances, by simply avoiding broaching the controversial topic in question again, with the implicit understanding that this is what was required for their continued employment. Steyn on the other hand remained an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime and America’s close relationship to it.

Meanwhile the Spectator, under new management, went on to publish several uncritical puff piece interviews with the Saudi ambassador, giving respectful coverage to his predictable opinions about Iraq and the Palestinian situation (which personally I found so sickening that I stopped buying this magazine after being a regular subscriber for over five years).

Also, he has shown the same obstinate refusal to kowtow to Muslim intimidation in general, despite the fact that if he were an unserious commentator it would make his life so much easier. After he was recently acquited by that Human rights body in Canada, he said that rather than a vindication this was purely a matter of political expediency—the Canadian gov’t were being embarrassed by the bad publicity and so exerted pressure on the council to drop the case.

A purely self-serving unserious writer would have counted his blessings and made sure not to put himself in such a personally troubling situation again (and there’s no doubt that this has been a trying situation for Steyn both in terms of cost and calumny—do you have any idea of the extent to which even centre-right columnists in the UK cast him as a racist and irrational Islamophobe?). Steyn’s response to his aquital? He has said that he will appeal the decision in his favour, on the grounds that by the Human Right’s Commission’s rules he should have been convicted, so as to force the case to go before the Canadian Supreme Court.

There are many more examples of this kind which I could cite. As much as I agree with you about Steyn’s (and Melanie Phillips’s) deeply flawed analysis of Islam, I honestly would credit him with having (imperfect) conservative convictions and a determined resolve to stand by them.

LA replies:

Thank you for this, I didn’t know several of these things. This makes me think better of him.

David B. writes:

I just read your piece about how to liberals, Mary Jo Kopechne was dispensable. I can confirm this from my own experience.

In 1969, I was a college sophomore of fervent liberal views. I was a great admirer of John and Robert Kennedy and hoped Edward Kennedy could “pick up the fallen standard.”

When my liberal friends talked politics after the Chappaquiddick incident, what we thought about was how it would affect Ted Kennedy’s chances to be president. We wanted him to stay in public life. One of my teachers was from Massachussetts. Of Chappaquiddick he said, “Ted is going to get a lot of sympathy over this.” See? Ted causes the death of a young woman and is the sympathetic figure. My liberal friends had little thought for Mary Jo Kopechne.We were worried that Ted could not beat Nixon in 1972 because of her death.

I am very ashamed to say that I went along with this thinking. When you are a liberal, you are always making rationalizations. It took a load off me when I stopped being one. It felt so much better to look at the world as it really is.

Scott B. writes:

While I’m defending Mark Steyn, let me link to one of my all-time favorite Mark Steyn articles, which basically says (plausibly) that political correctness was responsible for 9-11

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 28, 2009 07:57 PM | Send

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