Senator Edward Kennedy was a tough guy. He was smart, tenacious, opinionated, strong in body, mind, and spirit. And I think because he was such a tough guy, he won't mind if I don't share my real and uncensored thoughts on the occasion of his passing.
Teddy, as he was known, was privileged, in every sense of the word. And he made liberal use of his privilege, in ways I admired and ways I did not. The terrible bargain we all seem to have made with Teddy is that we overlooked the occasions when he invoked his privilege as a powerful and well-connected man from a prominent family, because of the career he made using that same privilege to try to make the world a better place for the people dealt a different lot.
Twice, Teddy did despicable things with his privilege, very publicly.
On Chappaquiddick Island, he drove his car off a bridge and made his way to safety; his female passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. I won't pretend to know if Teddy could have saved her, though I believe he would have if he could. What we all know, because he told us so, is that he fled the scene and did not call authorities until her body was discovered the next day, making it impossible to determine the extent of his responsibility with regard to alcohol consumption. His attorneys argued, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court agreed, that the inquest into Mary Jo's death would be held in secret. In the end, Teddy faced a two-month suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident, and no more.
In Palm Beach, Florida, two decades later, Teddy threw around his weight on behalf of his young nephew, William Kennedy Smith, with whom he'd been drinking the night William was accused of sexual assault. Though William had been accused of sexual assault multiple times before (and has been accused again since), Teddy vociferously protested his nephew's innocence and participated in the smear campaign against his accuser, who found herself pitted against the entire Kennedy clan and the enormous privileges its membership carries. Smith was found not guilty of all charges. His accuser's identity was made public.
Teddy's privilege allowed him to pull strings on his own behalf and on his nephew's behalf in criminal situations where one woman ended up dead and another raped. That is one of the many things the sort of limitless privilege like Teddy's allows—and he made use of it.
And I cannot forget it.
I can also not forget the myriad ways in which Teddy used his limitless privilege for the betterment of others, as Mustang Bobby so eloquently detailed. He quite genuinely cared about the poor, the sick, the needy, the dispossessed. He was an authentic progressive, who could acknowledge his own privilege and could stand in front of the Senate and talk about the privilege he had that people of color, LGBTQIs, and women lack. He was a great goddamn Senator—and would that the entire Senate, or even just the Democratic Caucus, was filled with people who were as passionate and progressive as he was.
It is much discussed that he felt burdened by being the torch-carrier for his fallen brilliant brothers, whose deaths and truncated potential haunted the entire nation. He had to do more than any other individual man, because he was living the life of three.
I suspect that Teddy, who knew himself well and could stare his flaws in the face, who carried the shame of his misdeeds in the furrow of his brow that never totally lightened even with a smile, also felt burdened by his own abuses of the privilege he knew he hadn't earned. It was there; he couldn't help himself using it, even when he knew he shouldn't have. And it hung on him, as well it should have.
He'd made a terrible bargain with himself, too.
Teddy's legacy, then, is complicated. A man of privilege, who used it cynically for his own benefit. A man of privilege, who used it generously to try to change the world. And maybe to salve his own conscience. Even as he believed fervently in the genuine rightness of his endeavors—and certainly would have, even if there wasn't a scale to balance.
I have no tidy conclusion. It is what it is.
RIP Teddy. Thank you for your excellent service in the United States Senate.