Joyce Carol Oates Begs to Differ on Ted Kennedy

Amid the accolades and outpouring of affection for the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, author Joyce Carol Oates ponders the senator's redemption after his questionable behavior on that night in 1969 when Mary Jo Kopechne died at Chappaquiddick bridge. She writes, "If one weighs the life of a single young woman against the accomplishments of the man President Obama has called the greatest Democratic senator in history, what is one to think?"

Have an opinion on Oates's essay? Let us know in the comments.

By Steven E. Levingston |  August 28, 2009; 10:19 AM ET
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It is often difficult to weigh a human being's actual life with the accomplishments of another's. I think, too, of Ted Kennedy's first wife, Joan, who became an alcoholic and pretty much descended into a hell of her own. Whose fault? You do not always have to kill someone to have them die. I wonder, as well, about the countless named/unnamed humans tossed aside not only by Sen. Kennedy, but by the rest of his family.

I am a great admirer of the work Sen. Kennedy did in Congress. It would be perhaps romantic to think he changed his life and ways and devoted himself to changing others' lives for the better. Can we equate one death to literally thousands upon thousands of lives made better by Sen. Kennedy's acts in Congress?

I believe the answer is no. But I am happy that he chose a path in life that, regardless of his previous choices, did do good and did make a difference.

Posted by: Stormy1 | August 28, 2009 1:01 PM

I think it's important, for many reasons, to consider Ted Kennedy's life in full -- and I think Oates' essay is correct in speaking out against the senator's sanctification. He leaves a complicated legacy, full of both admirable, impactful good works and "indefensible" bad decisions -- and I think we owe it to ourselves, and to him, to be honest as we mourn him.

Posted by: ptaddonio | August 28, 2009 4:11 PM

I was a teenager when Mary Joe Kopechne died, and I have never been able to forgive his reprehensive behavior. We show our true colors under stress. Perhaps he did try to save her. But running home to Mommy? Sorry, but it's very revealing and a further indication that the Kennedy men thought that the rules were for everyone else but themselves. She's dead. No matter what it he afterwards can't possibly compensate for that. And making jokes about it afterwards? Please. Beyond my comprehsnsion.

Posted by: CP4searchaolcom | August 28, 2009 6:41 PM

Oates's essay is excellent. Jewish tradition teaches that saving one human life is equivalent to saving the whole world. It does not teach that passing a great deal of legislation, no matter how excellent, is the same as saving the whole world. At Chappaquidick, Kennedy traded Ms. Kopechne's life for his political future. This indicated his estimation of both her worth--perhaps influenced by the well-documented Kennedy attitude toward women-- and his own. As a woman of her generation, as is Ms. Oates, I find his behavior literally unforgivable. No amount of legislation is worth her her life. And, as the late Mrs. Kopechne is reputed to have said, he paid the family off but never apologized. Finally, as the Sunday Times points out, Ms. Oates had to publish this truth in a British rather than an American paper.

Posted by: blbink1 | August 30, 2009 4:41 PM

I was a member of the same parish as the Kopechnes in Plymouth, Pennsylvania when Mary Jo Kopechne was killed. I think the hagiography accorded to Ted Kennedy is akin to glorifying a murderer, and it turned my stomach to see it on every channel, in every paper. To see him lionized as an examplar of Catholicism was even worse. Why do we still view this family through rose-colored glasses?

Posted by: babsy1 | August 31, 2009 1:14 PM

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