Forty years ago today, the world fixated upon Apollo 11’s lunar landing. But in Massachusetts, an incident highlighting humanity’s depths rather than its heights relegated one of the biggest stories of the 20th century to below the fold. “Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the only surviving brother in a family pursued by tragedy, narrowly escaped death early yesterday when his car plunged into a pond on a sparsely populated island off the coast of Martha’s Vinyard,” read the lede in the July 20, 1969 Boston Globe.
The story, of course, was not that the Bay State’s senior senator had “narrowly escaped death,” but that the occupant of the passenger seat, Mary Jo Kopechne, hadn’t. “She didn’t drown,” John Farrar, the diver who retrieved Kophechne’s body from Kennedy’s Oldsmobile, later pointed out. “She died of suffocation in her own air void. It took her at least three or four hours to die. I could have had her out of that car in twenty-five minutes after I got the call. But he didn’t call.” At least he didn’t call somebody who could have helped Kopechne — between the time of the accident and surrendering himself to the police the following morning, Senator Kennedy charged 17 long distance calls to his credit card.
Such questions as “What was the senator doing alone so late with a woman other than his wife?” and “Why was the senator driving after partying all day?” yielded to one even more troubling. Why did Senator Kennedy work so hard to save his political skin when he could have done something to save the life of the former aide to his late brother Robert? Outraged Americans wanted Kennedy’s resignation. Enamored Massachusetts voters reelected him the next year.
Four decades later, the issue of a Ted Kennedy resignation is again discussed, albeit in more hushed tones. The lawmaker’s battle with brain cancer has made it difficult for him to perform his duties in Congress. Kennedy has been absent from the Senate, his workplace for nearly a half century, for 14 months. He has participated in just 4 percent of the votes in the 111th Congress, missing roll calls on the stimulus package, the tobacco tax hike, the budget, and virtually every other issue of consequence that has come before the Senate.
The constituencies — Bay State voters and liberal Democrats — that would benefit most from his resignation are the most adamantly opposed to it. But the price of Kennedy retaining his title is high: Massachusetts gets half of the Senate representation as other states and Senate Democrats are denied the opportunity to break filibusters without the aid of Republicans.
When Alaska Governor Sarah Palin tendered her resignation because she reasoned that frivolous ethics complaints and other distractions had undermined her effectiveness, a torrent of negative press followed. But in keeping a title without performing the duties, Kennedy has experienced no such criticism.
HBO has been running a fawning documentary, “Teddy: In His Own Words,” that, as its title suggests, tells the story of Ted Kennedy’s life through his own words. This fall, the senator’s memoirs hit bookstores, with electronically-signed, leather-bound editions fetching $1,000. On Friday, the New York Times ran a hagiographic article on how much the Senate misses its second-most senior senator. “What would Teddy do?” Senator Patty Murray explained to the Times of the guiding principle on health care reform. “We’re all working to do what we think he’d want us to do.” Newsweek features the ailing senator on its cover and an accompanying article authored by him. Kennedy writes, “For four decades I have carried this cause — from the floor of the United States Senate to every part of this country.”
The irony here is that by treating his office as a family legacy Senator Kennedy risks undermining his political legacy. The health-care legislation widely seen as the exclamation point to Kennedy’s career faces a tough slog, made more arduous by the medical woes of Kennedy and his friend and former rival Robert Byrd. In an atmosphere in which every vote counts, there are two votes Democrats can’t count on. Apart from providing inspiration, the biggest impact Kennedy can have on ensuring the passage of a government-run health insurance program would be to resign and allow Democrats another reliable vote.
But if his reprehensible behavior surrounding the death of Mary Jo Kopechne didn’t prompt Senator Kennedy to resign 40 years ago, it’s unlikely that missing all but a handful of votes for more than a year will prompt him to resign today. For perhaps the first time in almost 47 years, Republicans are better off with a Kennedy inside the Senate than outside it.