America is remembering two anniversaries this summer. First, on July 20th the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Second, July 18th marked the 50th anniversary of an event far more infamous than famous: Chappaquiddick, the incident in which the late-Senator Edward Kennedy (D. MA) drove his car off a bridge resulting in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. Historians have long noted the strange coincidence of the timing of the two events and the likely impact such a coincidence played in the young Senator’s political future. Less noted, however, is the somewhat tangential connection the two events have to yet a third anniversary marked this summer, the fourth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision, in which the Court (in a 5-4 split) took it upon itself to virtually redefine the socially-central institution of marriage.
Begin, first, with the moon landing and Chappaquiddick. The third and last of the Kennedy brothers was already looking ahead to 1972 in that tumultuous summer of 69. Certainly and understandably, he and his family had more than ‘qualms’ about such a run, given the horrible and tragic fates suffered by his two older brothers. Yet, all three brothers were motivated, first, by the drive and determination of their father, Joseph Sr., to attain power and legitimacy through public office (preferably through the highest office in the land) and, second, by the memory of their oldest brother, Joe Jr., who had originally been groomed for the task, yet had died a heroic death in World War II.
Edward—Ted for short—was the last in line to fulfill his father’s dreams and expectations, and 1972 appeared to be a providential year to pick up the torch left by his fallen brothers. The divisions roiling the country over Vietnam, social change, and race relations, to name just a few, were growing in intensity and seemed unlikely to diminish under the leadership of Richard Nixon, the man his older brother had beaten in 1960. It’s not hard to imagine the campaign themes Kennedy could run on; ‘his sacrificed brothers’ dreams only partially fulfilled with the landing on the moon,’ with ‘much work left to be accomplished.’ Kennedy charisma with a ‘hope and change’ message versus the dour Nixon and four years of domestic and international strife. A perfect moment.
Such must have been the thoughts of Kennedy as he bounded up the steps of that cabin near Marth’s Vineyard on the evening of July 18th to host a party for six young women—all in their twenties—and five of his older male friends. What happened next is shrouded in mystery. What is known is that roughly twelve hours after the accident Kennedy would finally report to the police that he had driven his car off a bridge with a young lady inside, but only after police had already discovered the car.
This was in the days before 24/7 cable news cycles, when events—at least events falling somewhat short of something as catastrophic as a presidential assassination—wouldn’t be reported to the public until the day after the event. Thus it was that as the news of Chappaquiddick began to surface, the world and its journalists were fixated on what at the time seemed to be one of the most important achievements of mankind, the landing of a man on the moon.
Most historians would agree that the moon landing was at least fortuitous for Kennedy’s political career. It diverted both public attention and journalistic resources from full and immediate coverage and investigation of the accident and bought Kennedy and his phalanx of advisors time to construct what, today, we would call a “narrative”. This phalanx were, in the main, the creators and conservators of the great “Camelot” myth—men such as the academic Ted Sorenson and former Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara. There were the so-called ‘best and brightest,’ who had had helped shape the “Camelot” mythology that enveloped the presidency of Ted’s older brother, Jack. The time bought by the moon landing was a precious gift assisting their attempt to salvage that myth from the cold waters off Chappaquiddick Island.
Indeed, it would be a full week before Kennedy would finally address the issue on television.
Yet, if Chappaquiddick had politically wounded the man whose supporters would later label ‘the Lion of the Senate,’ it hadn’t politically killed that lion—and a wounded lion can be a dangerous thing. Kennedy would bide his time, passing on running for the presidency in 1972 and, again, in 1976. In 1980, with President Jimmy Carter’s poll numbers sagging amidst “stagflation” on the domestic front and and the Iran Hostage crisis on the international stage, Kennedy judged Chappaquiddick was in the past and determined it was his time to make his run. This resulted in one of the more painful moments in television history. Asked in an interview with journalist Roger Mudd, at the very start of the campaign, why he wanted to be President, Kennedy offered a rambling, incoherent response which left no doubt that the man who had spent much of his adult life preparing and maneuvering for the highest office in the land really hadn’t given any thought as to just why he should hold it. Kennedy’s insurgency rapidly dissipated and he soon withdrew from the race, the dream over—even if Kennedy would entertain hopes throughout the 1980s that it wasn’t really over.
Which brings us to the connection between these two events—the moon landing and Chappaquiddick—and the third historical anniversary of the summer, the Obergefell decision.
By 1981, Kennedy was in free fall, both politically and personally. He would soon divorce his wife Joan, and tales of drinking and womanizing, never far from the surface, would bubble up, including one 1985 incident with his drinking buddy, Senator Chris Dodd (D. Conn), involving unwanted sexual advances on a waitress at a popular Washington restaurant.
Politically, for the first time in his Senate career, Ted Kennedy found himself and his party in the minority. Frustrated, he determined that redemption could be had primarily by turning his efforts to thwarting the Reagan administration. For example, in a case of proven Russia collusion, Kennedy reached out through back channels to then-Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, hinting he might run for president, again, in 1984 or 1988, and offering to help Andropov explain the Soviet position to the American public by, for example, setting up television interviews for him. Reagan officials would later state they were aware of Kennedy’s overtures, but weren’t much worried about them.
Then, in 1987, after the June announcement by Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell, of his impending retirement from the bench, President Reagan nominated the venerable Judge Robert Bork. Kennedy and his supporters had expected as much. Within 45 minutes of the announcement of the nomination, Kennedy took to the Senate floor and in a nationally televised speech and viciously declared:
Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.
“Robert Bork’s America” was nothing of the sort. It was, in fact, an America in which the legislature legislates and the judiciary adjudicates—not the other way around. Kennedy’s secular progressive cohorts had for several decades been achieving in the courts the policy ends they couldn’t achieve at the ballot box, with Roe v. Wade being the prime example. Bork’s nomination threatened all of it.
The results of Kennedy’s speech were two-fold. First, and not inconsequentially, it marked, if not the beginning of the descent of our political discourse to its present nadir of complete incivility and anger, then certainly a singular and defining moment in that descent. The verb and the practice “to Bork”—that is, to completely and dishonestly destroy a person’s character for political gain—would enter the nation’s vocabulary, as we witnessed just a year ago in the ‘Borking’ of Justice Brent Kavanaugh.
More importantly, it worked politically and sunk Bork’s nomination, thus giving us Justice Anthony Kennedy. Of the six Republican votes cast against Bork, four were from Senators representing the Northeast, home to a large contingent of working-class Democrats who were crossing party lines to vote Republican in the 1980s but for whom the Kennedy mystique still held some sway. Would the same speech given by, say, Chris Dodd from Connecticut, have had the same impact? Possibly, but not likely.
It is hard to imagine just how different our politics and law might look today if just three of those Republicans had voted in favor of Judge Bork, for Justice Anthony Kennedy proved to be anything but the ‘mainstream’ conservative he was billed to be when he was nominated to the Court after Bork. Over roughly the next three decades, Justice Kennedy would prove himself to be a swing vote on the Court, often swinging the Court to the outcome most sought by the secular Left.
Most notably, it was Justice Kennedy who would pen the majority opinion in the infamous abortion case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 in which the Court ruled:
[A]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
Some twenty-one years later, Justice Kennedy would take the “right to define one’s own concept of existence” as his own by redefining for the rest of us the central meaning of the word, “marriage,” in the Obergefell decision forcibly legalizing gay marriage. As Sherif Girgis noted on this site four years ago, “the Supreme Court didn’t just confect a new right to same-sex civil marriage. In some ways, it inaugurated a new phase in American law, culture, and religion.”
Would Ted Kennedy still have survived Chappaquiddick had the Apollo 11 moon landing not served as a distraction? Perhaps. And would the attack on Bork been as successful as it was had it been launched by someone other than Kennedy? Again, perhaps. But as the historian David McCulloch has noted, “History is who we are and why we are the way we are.” And the way we are—all the political rancor, all the “Drag Queen Story Hours,” all the suppression of speech, all the loss of businesses and jobs for those who refuse to submit to the New Orthodoxy, all the threats to our religious liberties—stems, at least in part, to this history.
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