Carla Carlisle on Ted Kennedy

I had every intention of going. I washed my hair, ironed my linen skirt, doused myself in Jo Malone ‘Gardenia’. But by the time I got downstairs to my waiting husband, I’d lost heart. ‘I don’t feel so well,’ I mumbled. Which wasn’t true. I felt fine, but my husband believes that, once accepted, you do not wriggle out of a social engagement unless you have an open wound that requires stitches. Still, he gave me the benefit of his doubts and, reluctantly, went without me. As soon as he left, I settled down in front of the television.

The truth was, I wanted to watch the news. All of it. Channel 4, Newsnight and the BBC News Channel in between. It was my version of a wake: watching all the old footage of Ted Kennedy’s life. To hear the voices of his brothers, to witness again the inauguration of John F. Kennedy and hear those familiar words ‘the torch has been passed to a new generation’; to see the profile of Bobby Kennedy as he denounced the war in Vietnam; and to study Ted Kennedy as he went from pudgy youth to lean and handsome young man to bloated and red-faced politician to white-haired and distinguished statesman. As the youngest son became the oldest.

Sometimes, I feel that I’ve been attending Kennedy funerals all my life: JFK, RFK, Jackie, John Jr. Although I’m closer in age to Caroline Kennedy than to her Uncle Teddy, the history I’ve lived through is defined by JFK’s assassination, RFK’s assassination, and, uncomfortable as it is to say it, Chappaquiddick.

In the week’s interminable replays, a black-and-white shot of a rickety bridge without railings appeared again and again, a symbol of Ted Kennedy’s weakness and his cowardice. Unlike his brother’s heroic efforts in the Pacific in the Second World War, swimming miles with an injured comrade strapped to him, the spoiled younger brother abandoned the woman in his car, left the scene of the accident and failed to report it for 10 hours. In all the week’s eloquent obituaries of Ted Kennedy, I yearned for just one of Mary Jo Kopechne whose name is forever engraved in history as the girl who was in the car late at night with a married man well known for his drunken philandering.

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It may seem a slender footnote, but Kopechne, the only child of hardworking Polish-Americans, was an idealistic and serious young woman. After university, she headed south to Alabama to work in the Civil Rights Movement, teaching in a black Catholic mission school. A year later, she moved to Washington, joining Robert Kennedy’s secretarial staff after his election to the senate in 1964, working tirelessly on his speeches against the Vietnam War and, in 1968, helping to write his speech announcing his candidacy. Despite the siren call of freedom in the 1960s, Kopechne was a devout Catholic who drank little, a girl who did not ‘sleep around’.

If Ted Kennedy’s life were a novel, Chappaquiddick would be his road to Damascus, the moment he looked in the mirror and asked himself how he could live with the man he saw there. But two more decades would be eaten up in crude womanising and bad drinking, in the carelessness of the rich, before he became the man who was buried last week.

The man whose name is stamped on bills from voting rights to minimum wage, and the cause of his life: health-care reform. His was the brave voice who opposed the invasion of Iraq and supported the candidacy of Barack Obama.   

In the end it was the love of a good woman that saved Ted Kennedy from himself. His second wife, Vicky brainy, beautiful, kind saved his political life when he faced defeat by Mitt Romney in 1994. She took over his senatorial campaign. And she saved his soul. She brought order, purpose and happiness to his life. The last chapter in our common history could have ended in tragedy, but it became a story of redemption, which is as close to a happy ending as life gets.