Sunday 30 August 2009

Before Mary Jo, there was Joe.

Even before Mary Jo Kopechne died, there was the patriarch Joseph Patrick Kennedy Senior.

In the 1980s, I had the opportunity to attend a Fourth of July neighbourhood party on the bank of the Delaware River. It was a day-long 'happening', replete with platters of delicious food, and bustling with many home-crafted amusements for the numerous children of working class families of mixed Irish, Polish, and German ancestry. Several generations jostled verbally and physically with good cheer and great kindness. I felt quite comfortable and welcome in this environment where Catholic and Democrat culture dominated.

Later that evening the discussion turned to politics; Reagan was in his second term of office. The owner of a local general store, a man in his sixties who had listened to commiserations about the failure of the Democrats to rally 'round and present a strong candidate like say, JFK or RFK to counter the Republicans said quietly: "Joe Kennedy had a lot to answer for. If anyone should have been shot, it was him." Oddly, this remark did not provoke any protest; clearly this man had uttered this opinion before and his neighbours either shared it or couldn't offer any strong arguments in opposition.

Information about the Kennedy clan trickled out after the deaths of Joe Sr in 1969, matriarch Rose Fitzgerald in 1995 and Rosemary in 2005. In particular, shameful details regarding the factors that led Joe to subject his daughter to lobotomization ultimately hold up to scrutiny the values this man held. A revealing quote from president Roosevelt, asked when Joe was rewarded with an appointment to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission as the inaugural Chairman, why he had chosen such a crook. "Takes one to catch one," replied Roosevelt.

By all accounts, Joe was a devout and traditional Catholic; his actions demonstrated he was also a charming, smooth, amoral and ethically depraved financial operator and political opportunist. Did his irrational and omnipresent fear of Communism allow him to justify to himself why he encouraged his daughters to date the odious Joe McCarthy?

There have been a few opinion pieces that suggest circumstances surrounding the death of Mary Jo Kopechne transformed Senator Edward Kennedy into a crusader for social justice who was admired and respected by many.

I believe that Joe Kennedy's children and to a certain extent, his grandchildren were damaged by the toxic heritage of testosterone-fuelled, high-risk-taking behaviours passed on and sanctioned by the patriarch. But I also think that in reaction to the inherent hypocrisy and the great harm done, most of his progeny consciously chose to redress and redeem Joe's terrible legacy, armed with a sense of duty and animated by an acute awareness of the sources of the family wealth they've enjoyed.

The brilliance, the generosity and the dedication of the Kennedy's individual and familial commitment was - and still is, as the work of Rory Kennedy demonstrates - constant and far-reaching. One has to wonder if Eunice Kennedy Shriver's high-profile involvement with the Special Olympics was a gentle way of reminding Joe that he was directly responsible for the permanent condition that afflicted Rosemary.


Jennifer Smith said...

I knew Joe was an evil bastard, but I had no idea about what he did to his daughter. I can't help but think of my aunt, who was diagnosed with depression in the early 60s and was given shock treatment. She was never the same after that.

Funny how the news reports when Eunice Kennedy died all talked about her sister being an inspiration for the Special Olympics, but not one mentioned that she had been lobotomized.

Bina said...

I hate to say it, but both of the pundits linked about Chappaquiddick were dead wrong. Mel Ayton's piece at Crime Magazine, "The Bridge at Chappaquiddick" (google it, I can't paste the link here), goes into a lot of detail that the pundits all wilfully overlook. It was not an affair, it was an accident. They had both had too much to drink, and she wasn't feeling well, so he unwisely offered to drive her back to her motel. He was not very familiar with the local terrain. The bridge was very badly angled, so that drivers had to make a sharp turn to get onto it. Moreover, it was humped--something that would make it hard to drive even stone sober and in broad daylight. And then, to cap it all, a local cop car showed up right behind them, because the officer noticed that they seemed lost. Kennedy saw the headlights in his rear-view mirror and panicked, thinking this would be one of those "gotcha" moments that local police like to spring on politicians, catching them in inappropriate situations with women not their wives. He misjudged the cop's intention to help them find their way. He sped up, rather than slowing as he should have, when he hit the bridge. The roll-over was inevitable, in other words. The car, which had no seatbelts, landed on its roof, meaning head and neck injuries for both. She may well have been unconscious, which would explain why she could not get out in time. He got a bad enough crack on the head that he wound up with amnesia. He tried to save her, but could not (not only because of his injuries but because there were strong rip currents at the scene; one sucked him right out of the open driver's side window, which is probably why he survived).

And the reason for the inconsistencies in his account? Well, among other things, his panicky, irrational behavior afterwards points to brain injuries, amnesia and shock. He showed up for her funeral in a neck brace, too. He himself repeatedly said he could not accurately remember what happened, and this is probably true.

Every hit piece I've seen about Chappaquiddick glosses over the full extent of his injuries, making it sound like he was unhurt, that he blithely got out and just left her. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was quite badly hurt, but he *did* try to save her, several times, before giving up and going to look for help.

I don't know if anyone bothered to examine Mary Jo's brain for signs of trauma or not. If they had, she probably would have presented with head injuries similar to his, consistent with a car with no seatbelts landing on its roof and dumping both of its passengers upside down. If she had been knocked unconscious, it would explain why she was not able to save herself, just as his injuries and shock (and the strong currents) explain why he could not save her either.

Long story short: Ted Kennedy had nothing to "come clean" about, as far as Chappaquiddick goes; the media hounded him for no valid reason. Their behavior was more embarrassing, in the end, than his. Still is.

deBeauxOs said...

Thanks for the information Bina. I wasn't suggesting that Ted should have been charged by the police. But I take note that the opinions I've linked to, do not take into account the facts you presented.

My point was that if anyone is looking for a reason in the background that explains perhaps why so many of the Kennedys seem driven to redress social injustices, one need look no further than Joe Sr. It's only fair to observe that rarely are members of rightwing, conservative families cursed with similar patriarchs as dedicated to public service unless it's self-serving.

Bina said...

That's certainly true...old Joe was a miscreant. He had no pure motives for doing any good thing he ever did, and in the end it cost him his chances at public office. There was just too much slime oozing off him. Even in Tammany Hall, that wouldn't have flown. His sons seem to have had a lot to compensate for, and the fact that Bobby, in particular, was a mafia buster, tells me that they would have succeeded, had the mobs not struck back and killed them. (There is lots of evidence linking the Mafia to both murders; the official version is a tissue of lies.)

And yep, mafiosi are highly conservative as a general rule. There are links between the Mob and Richard Nixon, in fact, which would go a long way to explaining why dirty tricks are an integral part of Repug politics to this day, and why so many known Mafia figures had ties to Nixon and LBJ both.

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