No redemption for the wicked

America has duly performed its solemn rituals to mark the passing of Ted Kennedy - the pompous displays, the airy speeches, the pseudo-dignified deference to the dead. What we ought to reflect upon, with equal solemnity, is what America's legitimization and ultimate acceptance of such a man portends for ourselves.

The tale of Chappaquiddick has, of course, been told and retold. But what Ted Kennedy did to Mary Jo Kopechne that summer night in 1969 is so depraved that the story bears repetition.

Put aside the debauchery of the party Kennedy attended that night at which all but one of the men were married and all of the women single. The salient facts are that Kennedy, who was facing reelection in the Senate the following year, was culpable in placing Kopechne under seven feet of water in Poucha Pond after he drove the car in which she was a passenger off Dike Bridge, and was therefore legally and morally obligated to act reasonably to save her; but that he then purposefully allowed her to suffocate or drown when for hours she might have been saved, by choosing - choosing - not to call for help.

In his subsequent address to the People of Massachusetts, carefully crafted for him by other conspirators after the fact, he denied any "immoral conduct" with Kopechne (which conduct was likely interrupted by her inconvenient death) and insinuated that a "cerebral concussion" and "shock" accounted for his admittedly "indefensible" failure to call anyone to come to her aid. Tellingly, he said that "In the morning, with my mind somewhat more lucid, I made an effort to call ... " not the police but "a family legal advisor."

Thus did he reveal fairly explicitly that his thoughts then and no doubt all along had been not for the girl he had put at the bottom of the channel but only for his own welfare.

More than half of Americans did not believe Kennedy's self-serving story, as confirmed in a Time-Harris poll taken days after his televised apology. Gail Lance Huntoon, a 17-year old girl working at her grandmother's South Beach hotel, put it this way: "Everything he said was a lie." Yet, Massachusetts voters almost unanimously supported Kennedy's decision to run for the Senate. Why?

The answer might be discerned in Huntoon's declaration forty years later that Kennedy, after all, had "really tried to pay back in public service." Likewise, biographer Adam Clymer wrote that Kennedy's "achievements as a senator have towered over his time, changing the lives of far more Americans than remember the name Mary Jo Kopechne."

Thus on display is the public's willingness to weigh good against bad in assessing the virtue of, and in rationalizing forgiveness for, a popular character.

But such utilitarian calculations are inappropriate. Once a person commits an act of sufficient depravity, he is and ought to be defined by that act alone. No one could reasonably weigh the pleasure O.J. Simpson might have brought to millions through his athletic prowess and TV and movie appearances against the pain he caused to a "mere" few. He is and ought to remain the murderer of Nicole Simpson and Ron Brown, period.

Kennedy's actions were arguably worse than Simpson's. The latter may have acted impetuously, on a rage-filled impulse. The former had ten long hours to consider, and repeatedly and continuously calculated that his political and personal welfare was more important than the life of that girl. He chose to let her slowly and horrifyingly die. An act that depraved cannot be weighed against or outweighed by even a thousand acts of good.

Yet such a weighing was done - twice. First, when the people of Massachusetts, including a judge and a prosecutor, declined to hold Kennedy accountable because, on the other side of a perceived scale, he had the glamour of his name. And second when, looking back on the senator's life, some would offer his public service as sufficient penance against his wanton causation of the death of a young girl. 

That Americans too readily apply such a utilitarian calculus and forgive the depraved but popular can be seen elsewhere, as in the return to professional football of the sadistic dog fighter Michael Vick, to the adulation of his oblivious fans.

It can be seen as well in the election of Barack Obama, a man who after a lifetime of association with the most vicious anti-Semites (and who would, not unpredictably, become "the most hostile sitting American president in the history of the state of Israel") enjoyed the support of nearly eighty percent of Jewish voters. A pinch of glamour, a dash of charm, and he was redeemed.

Steven Zak, a writer and attorney,  has written for publications including The Atlantic Monthly, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and USA Today.
America has duly performed its solemn rituals to mark the passing of Ted Kennedy - the pompous displays, the airy speeches, the pseudo-dignified deference to the dead. What we ought to reflect upon, with equal solemnity, is what America's legitimization and ultimate acceptance of such a man portends for ourselves.

The tale of Chappaquiddick has, of course, been told and retold. But what Ted Kennedy did to Mary Jo Kopechne that summer night in 1969 is so depraved that the story bears repetition.

Put aside the debauchery of the party Kennedy attended that night at which all but one of the men were married and all of the women single. The salient facts are that Kennedy, who was facing reelection in the Senate the following year, was culpable in placing Kopechne under seven feet of water in Poucha Pond after he drove the car in which she was a passenger off Dike Bridge, and was therefore legally and morally obligated to act reasonably to save her; but that he then purposefully allowed her to suffocate or drown when for hours she might have been saved, by choosing - choosing - not to call for help.

In his subsequent address to the People of Massachusetts, carefully crafted for him by other conspirators after the fact, he denied any "immoral conduct" with Kopechne (which conduct was likely interrupted by her inconvenient death) and insinuated that a "cerebral concussion" and "shock" accounted for his admittedly "indefensible" failure to call anyone to come to her aid. Tellingly, he said that "In the morning, with my mind somewhat more lucid, I made an effort to call ... " not the police but "a family legal advisor."

Thus did he reveal fairly explicitly that his thoughts then and no doubt all along had been not for the girl he had put at the bottom of the channel but only for his own welfare.

More than half of Americans did not believe Kennedy's self-serving story, as confirmed in a Time-Harris poll taken days after his televised apology. Gail Lance Huntoon, a 17-year old girl working at her grandmother's South Beach hotel, put it this way: "Everything he said was a lie." Yet, Massachusetts voters almost unanimously supported Kennedy's decision to run for the Senate. Why?

The answer might be discerned in Huntoon's declaration forty years later that Kennedy, after all, had "really tried to pay back in public service." Likewise, biographer Adam Clymer wrote that Kennedy's "achievements as a senator have towered over his time, changing the lives of far more Americans than remember the name Mary Jo Kopechne."

Thus on display is the public's willingness to weigh good against bad in assessing the virtue of, and in rationalizing forgiveness for, a popular character.

But such utilitarian calculations are inappropriate. Once a person commits an act of sufficient depravity, he is and ought to be defined by that act alone. No one could reasonably weigh the pleasure O.J. Simpson might have brought to millions through his athletic prowess and TV and movie appearances against the pain he caused to a "mere" few. He is and ought to remain the murderer of Nicole Simpson and Ron Brown, period.

Kennedy's actions were arguably worse than Simpson's. The latter may have acted impetuously, on a rage-filled impulse. The former had ten long hours to consider, and repeatedly and continuously calculated that his political and personal welfare was more important than the life of that girl. He chose to let her slowly and horrifyingly die. An act that depraved cannot be weighed against or outweighed by even a thousand acts of good.

Yet such a weighing was done - twice. First, when the people of Massachusetts, including a judge and a prosecutor, declined to hold Kennedy accountable because, on the other side of a perceived scale, he had the glamour of his name. And second when, looking back on the senator's life, some would offer his public service as sufficient penance against his wanton causation of the death of a young girl. 

That Americans too readily apply such a utilitarian calculus and forgive the depraved but popular can be seen elsewhere, as in the return to professional football of the sadistic dog fighter Michael Vick, to the adulation of his oblivious fans.

It can be seen as well in the election of Barack Obama, a man who after a lifetime of association with the most vicious anti-Semites (and who would, not unpredictably, become "the most hostile sitting American president in the history of the state of Israel") enjoyed the support of nearly eighty percent of Jewish voters. A pinch of glamour, a dash of charm, and he was redeemed.

Steven Zak, a writer and attorney,  has written for publications including The Atlantic Monthly, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and USA Today.