Most moralists would have no difficulty with the notion that good people have a flip side; they are sometimes bad. The trick in judging them morally, which ought to be done rarely and with great circumspection, is not to slide into a kind of moral Manichaeism in which you end up saying that the good side of a man redeems the bad side.
It does not.
St. Augustine, who was very bad before his mother drew him into Christianity, may serve as a model. He flew from his sins without having make the mistake of believing that his meritorious works in some sense cancelled the sins.
It took sometime after the late former Sen. Edward Kennedy died for people to get around to noticing that he was, in fashionable parlance, “complex,” which is to say he was riven, as most men are, by sin. Or, if agnostic and atheistic readers prefer a less religiously freighted expression, we might say Kennedy was the victim of “human failings.”
Some of Kennedy’s human failings were monstrous. Kevin Rennie, a Hartford Courant commentator, touches on one of them in a Sunday column that appeared shortly after the senator’s funeral.
“Kennedy,” Rennie wrote, “had an unusual relationship with traditional notions of justice. No one else in American public life could have survived what he did on Chappaquiddick Island on July 18, 1969, and remained in high office.
“He drove off a bridge into water, swam to safety and left 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne dead in the submerged car for at least eight hours, until two men going fishing saw the car in the water. During that time, Kennedy walked a mile to confer with a cousin and a friend, returned to the scene with them, purportedly swam to Edgartown, slept in his hotel room and returned to Chappaquiddick in the morning, all while his liver rid itself of whatever incriminating alcohol he might have consumed.”
Well yes, there was that.
In a repentant mode thereafter, so the narrative goes, Kennedy, casting off his failings, turned his life towards doing good for the poor and helpless among us.
All this is very Catholic: You sin; you repent; you do penance; you are forgiven. You move on. You dedicate your years to doing good. Out of the night, God brings the bright day.
There is something juvenile in this analysis, because it does not account for the chief psychological driver in Kennedy’s character, which is – revolt. He was what French philosopher Albert Camus might call a man in revolt.
How soon after the “tragic accident” in Chappaquiddick did Kennedy resolve to “move on?” Some accounts suggest he moved on immediately after the accident, when he took his first step beyond the first house, yards away from the scene of the accident, where he might have stopped to summon help. After that first step, everything was a flight from the truth, a lie. He had left the best of himself behind on the road that pointed to Mary Jo Kopeckne’s body.
Kennedy said he panicked. But everything he did after that first step – which already placed him miles and years away from his responsibilities – was coldly deliberative.
Kennedy made a choice on that fateful day that has clung to him like a spider’s web ever after: Should I do the right thing, or save my political career? He called in the usual crew, among whom were Ted Sorensen and Robert McNamara. The knights of Camelot did their best for him. His career was saved, his political future assured. It did not disappear in the waters of Poncha Pond.
But it must not be thought that Kennedy alone was haunted by these events.
"It was a cover-up," said Leslie Leland, foreman of the grand jury that considered the case. "All [the authorities] were concerned about was protecting Kennedy."