The Death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy: What Should One Emphasize in Eulogizing Him?

–Richard E. Vatz

When newspapers have significant warning of an icon’s death, you can bet that the next day the obituaries will be of a small book’s length, and so it was in The Washington Post and The New York Times today, pursuant to the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who at 77 succumbed to brain cancer.

If I am known for one thing in my field of rhetoric, it is the casting of the relationship between rhetoric and situations in this way: rhetoric determines what we see as relevant aspects of situations and what they mean. More specific, in the current case, it is the argument that a large part of rhetorical study is the struggle to make certain facts salient and to diminish the salience of other facts.

There is so much in Sen. Kennedy’s full life. It is a “life fully spent,” even if arguably not overwhelmingly “well spent.” I shall not write a full account here, but any such essay would have to address his unapologetic liberalism — strewn with liberal legislation, some of which was crafted with nominally conservative senators – his surely unanimously acclaimed Herculean work ethic, his integrity in being good to his word with his fellow senators, and his own great contribution to eulogistic rhetoric in his extraordinarily memorable speech commemorating the death of his brother, Robert Kennedy, about which I have written previously.

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There are scandals, including his being cashiered from Harvard, where, as The New York Times describes, Kennedy “persuaded another student to take his Spanish examination…” And there were other ethical lapses, none of which is sufficiently disqualifying to citing his personal and occupational accomplishments.

But then there is this: the Chappaquiddick tragedy. On July 18, 1969, Sen. Kennedy, as The Washington Post states in today’s lengthy article, “…attended a small get-together of friends and Robert Kennedy campaign workers on Chappaquiddick, a narrow island off Martha’s Vineyard. Late that night, the car he was driving ran off a narrow wooden bridge and plunged into a tidal pool. His only passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, one of the ‘boiler room girls’ in Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign, drowned. Kennedy, who failed to report the incident to police for about nine hours, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of leaving the scene of an accident. He received a two-month suspended sentence and lost his driver’s license for a year. In a televised speech on July 25, six days after Kopechne’s death, Kennedy confessed to being so addled by the accident that he was not thinking straight. ‘I was overcome, I’m frank to say, by a jumble of emotions: grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion and shock,’ he said.”

The only argument I have with that description is the use of the word “confessed.” Sen. Kennedy did not confess that he was not thinking straight; he claimed as exculpatory evidence that his being “addled” accounts for his not reporting the incident to police – for nine hours.

His dishonest (“nor was I driving under the influence of liquor”), unconvincing, self-ennobling (“I made immediate and repeated efforts to save Mary Jo”) and at times self-pitying (referring to his wondering if there were a “curse” that stalked the Kennedys) and disingenuous(“I do not seek to escape responsibility for my actions”) description of his efforts to save Mary Jo Kopechne in a speech to the people of Massachusetts was insulting to his audience, many of whom re-elected him handily to the Senate following the accident.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was a giant in the Senate in terms of influence, even if he got there in 1962 on the back of his family name. His opponent in that race, Edward J. McCormack Jr., several times iterated the argument, “And I ask you, if his name was Edward Moore — with your qualifications, with your qualifications, Teddy — if it was Edward Moore, your candidacy would be a joke. Nobody’s laughing, because his name is not Edward Moore; it’s Edward Moore Kennedy.”

Kennedy aficionados will, as it is appropriate, reflect on Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s great and strong speaking voice, his senatorial comradeship and his successful and unsuccessful efforts to turn the United States into a far left “city upon a hill” (a phrase spoken by both Presidents John F. Kennedy – after he was elected president — and Ronald Reagan). But how they can ignore Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s utterly irresponsible manslaughter of a young woman to save his political career is beyond this writer’s comprehension.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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