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Massachusetts Soap Opera

Spectators look on as police work near the car driven by Sen. Edward Kennedy at Chappaquiddick, July 19, 1969. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: The following originally appeared in the August 12, 1969 issue of National Review.

Does it matter, on the issue of Senator Kennedy’s future, what theory of what actually happened during those ten hours of July 18/19 you accept as your own? No one in the possession of his senses can believe either of the two (contradictory) accounts Senator Kennedy has given. There will doubtless be other accounts; possibly though not very probably the full truth will some day leak through. Nor do we imply any reference to legal questions; the law can take its course, Massachusetts willing. But it is not necessary to know what happened during the ten hours or to make legal distinctions. The conclusion that Edward M. Kennedy is psychologically and morally unfit to be president rests solidly on what all of us know he has said and not said, done and not done, since re-emerging, that Saturday morning, into the public domain.

Take him at his own evaluation. “I regard as indefensible the fact that I did not report the accident [not to speak of the death] to the police immediately.” The adjective is exact: indefensible. “I was overcome by a jumble of emotions — grief, fear, doubt, torture, panic, confusion, exhaustion, and shock.” In other words, he failed to live up to a serious challenge.

But he didn’t collapse so completely that he neglected his own self-interest. It was Mary Jo in the water, but this, forsooth, is one more “Kennedy tragedy.” Kennedy! Nor has he hesitated even at pushing a big share of the rap off on his friends Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, who, he told the world in his TV speech, share responsibility for the failure to report the accident. Didn’t they have the primary responsibility, in truth — rather than the man who is overcome by panic, exhaustion, to comply promptly with all the minutiae of the law? And the coverups and the concerted silences of the cottage dozen. And that taking-his-medicine business that just happened to mean that nobody would have to give any testimony under oath. Then, as climax, the demagogy of the TV performance.

It was good soap opera, certainly, a thoroughly professional use of the reigning queen of the media, and was successful soap opera at least for its immediate purpose in Massachusetts. The yeas rolled in.

It was good soap opera, certainly, a thoroughly professional use of the reigning queen of the media, and was successful soap opera at least for its immediate purpose in Massachusetts. The yeas rolled in.

The immediate reaction of the audience was predictable. That is not our present concern. Never mind what the spontaneous emotion-ridden response of the unguided masses is. What we want to know is the judgment rendered by the leaders and formers of opinion, who are usually so quick and voluble in their moral pronouncements about everything on Earth from apartheid to space programs. The archaic medium of print has made a considerably better showing than the electronic medium. Coverage has been full, more than full, and has in many cases been reasonably objective concerning facts and non-facts. But the reportage has tended to get lost in the mass of detail, and the commentaries have mostly swung this way and that and drowned clear judgment in a flood of portentous rhetoric.

Right now it is not Edward Kennedy who is being tested. He has been tested, and he failed the test. It is the nation’s public leaders, now, whom the realities of this affair are testing. How many of them have the courage to tell it the way it is, the way every one of them knows it is — to declare simply and flatly: Edward M. Kennedy is, on this showing, not fit to contend for the presidency of the United States.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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