It would be easy, and not unwarranted, to mark Thursday’s 50th anniversary of the Chappaquiddick incident by reviewing in excruciating detail all the ways that night that then-Sen. Ted Kennedy failed his duty as a decent human being.

Maybe we can go deeper, though, and let this anniversary of the accident be the last one receiving major retrospectives. Maybe we, too, can act with good judgment by letting this awful story rest once this week ends.

It is by now well known that Kennedy, that night and the next morning, acted with selfishness, callousness, and cowardice. With his victim, Mary Jo Kopechne, remaining in the car he had just submerged, Kennedy walked past several lighted houses without knocking on the doors to ask for help. He didn’t report the accident until after a full night’s sleep, a shower, and a social visit with breakfasting hotel neighbors. And it turns out that Kopechne probably survived long enough that if Kennedy had secured a rapid and concerted rescue effort, and if everything went absolutely perfectly, it might have saved her life.

We know all that. Nothing will change it. Nothing to be written here will reduce Kennedy’s moral shame.

Now, though, spare a thought or two for the Kennedy and Kopechne families. This was a human tragedy. It left upon the survivors some devastatingly human scars.

Of course, the worst survivors’ scars were those suffered by the Kopechnes and by Mary Jo’s friends. Not only did they lose her, but they had to endure decades of having her known by most of the world not for the accomplishments she surely would have made, but by the way she died. This is wretched beyond words.

But don’t withhold your sympathy from the Kennedy family, either. As horrid as we conservatives think their politics and personal behavior often were, their tales of tragedy are epic as well….

[The full July 17 column is here.]


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