The ghost at Chappaquiddick

T1Z6Z1P_largeI've wanted to look at some of the coverage of the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy but haven't quite been sure what to say of the it. From my perspective as a Capitol Hill reporter, he was a blast to cover -- a fascinating man to watch in action either at work or play. And not that I would "cover" him at worship but I even saw him once at St. Joseph's -- the Senate-side Catholic Church that I have visited with friends. But, you know, sometimes I don't understand why the media is so hagiographic when politicians, actors, musicians and sports heroes die. And it's particularly confusing when the hagiography is for a man with a past as colorful as Kennedy's. I feel sympathy for the man's family and friends and don't want the media to speak ill of him but neither do I want them to sugarcoat the bad stuff.

I thought it might be interesting to look at how media outlets have handled some of the more lurid details. Do you ignore them or confront them head on? How do you be respectful and accurate?

Editor & Publisher actually went through each major paper's obituary to see in which paragraph Chappaquiddick was mentioned. The results were somewhat surprising. The more liberal Boston Globe mentioned it much earlier than the more right-leaning Boston Herald, for instance.

One remembrance in the Boston Globe, by Joan Vennochi, deserved a mention here at GetReligion. Here's how she handled Kennedy's past indiscretions and troubles. It begins powerfully:

IN DEATH, Ted Kennedy will be idealized, his accomplishments lionized, his weaknesses glossed over.

If it can happen to Michael Jackson, a mere king of pop, it will surely happen to the last son of Camelot. But the truth about Kennedy is where it is with most of us: somewhere in the middle. Somewhere between the great liberal icon and the not-so-great senator who walked away at Chappaquiddick was a human being, trying his best, but sometimes falling short.

Like all figures in history - and like those in the Bible, for that matter - Kennedy came with flaws. Moses had a temper. Peter betrayed Jesus. Kennedy had Chappaquiddick, a moment of tremendous moral collapse.

It's not the comparison of Kennedy to Moses or St. Peter so much as what she says about Peter. It was Judas who betrayed Jesus, not Peter. Peter denied Christ three times, of course. It's an odd mistake but it also forces some theological questions -- about the severity of sins, contrition and forgiveness. It's that contrition issue that has always dogged Kennedy.

Terry already highlighted some of the better stories that explain the different between the carousing Teddy and the one who wanted to die a better man.

But, again, what about contrition? As I'm writing this, my husband and I are listening to a tape of The Diane Rehm Show -- a very popular public radio show here in DC. There is a panel of journalists, academics and pollsters speaking quite well of Kennedy. One of them is Ed Klein, former foreign editor of Newsweek and editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine. And he just said that Ted Kennedy liked to joke about Chappaquiddick:

I don't know if you know this or not, but one of his favorite topics of humor was indeed Chappaquiddick itself. And he would ask people, "have you heard any new jokes about Chappaquiddick?" That is just the most amazing thing. It's not that he didn't feel remorse about the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, but that he still always saw the other side of everything and the ridiculous side of things, too.

So how do reporters write up Chappaquiddick?

One of the most thoughtful -- and kind -- pieces of analysis I read about just that came from AOL's Politics Daily site and was penned by senior Washington correspondent Carl Cannon -- the former DC bureau chief for Reader's Digest, White House reporter for National Journal and past president of the White House Correspondents' Association. I've always known he's a great political reporter but I found his treatment of the religion angle here to be well done. First he sets the scene by briefly detailing what happened at Chappaquiddick:

The idea that Edward M. Kennedy could be a viable national politician -- let alone a much-admired and lionized political figure -- has convinced millions of everyday citizens and succeeding generations of conservative activists that among the elites of academia, politics, and the media two standards of behavior exist: One for liberal Democrats and another for conservative Republicans. Along with sweeping changes in immigration law, soaring oratory, and strengthening the nation's social safety net, this reservoir of class resentment is also part of Kennedy's legacy.

Liberals in the media pretend not to see this. Or rather, they blame those who feel aggrieved. This very morning, my old friend James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly employed the usual euphemisms about Kennedy's behavior in his post -- and then launched a preemptive strike against anyone who might view Teddy's life with gimlet eyes. "A flawed man, who started unimpressively in life -- the college problems, the silver-spoon boy senator, everything involved with Chappaquiddick -- but redeemed himself, in the eyes of all but the committed haters, with his bravery and perseverance and commitment to the long haul," Fallows wrote.

I like Jim Fallows, and stand in awe of Kennedy's effectiveness as a politician myself. But hold on a minute: The "college problems" were serial cheating. The "silver-spoon" stuff, I suppose refers to, among other things, the speeding and reckless driving that ominously foreshadowed Chappaquiddick. And that phrase "redeeming himself in the eyes of all but the committed haters," well, the problem with that is that to many people, redemption implies that a sinner has come clean.

Certain theological questions present themselves here, ones that are well above, as our president memorably said, the "pay grade" of most political writers. One of them is whether one can completely atone for a sin that is not truthfully confessed. Kennedy did say, in a wrenching 1976 interview with the Boston Globe, that his behavior that night was "irrational and indefensible and inexcusable and inexplicable."

And that's just the beginning. The piece includes much more detail about the night that Kopechne lost her life. It's not disputed and it's not pretty and it is just tragic and mind-boggling no matter how you look at it. It doesn't answer the contrition issue but it raises it and acknowledges its legitimacy.

But it goes on. It goes on to explain the other Teddy -- the generous, charming, interesting and gregarious one that seemingly everyone who knew him just loved. Democrats loved him as a liberal leader and Republicans had trouble speaking ill of him after they got to know him. Reporters, lobbyists and everyone whose paths crossed Kennedy's would probably say the same thing.

I don't really know how to handle it. What do you think? What is the proper way to treat this issue? Michael Paulson at the Boston Globe has a great look at how people viewed Kennedy's Catholicism -- both when it came to liberal causes and when it came to abortion -- but he doesn't get into the Kopechne incident. He let's activists on both sides speak and gets some clarifying quotes from Catholic officials. It's a good model to follow.

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