As the eulogizing and lionizing of Senator Edward Kennedy continue, the earlier part of his life—long before he was the so-called "lion of the Senate"—is largely ignored. Yet it is that part of his life, before and shortly after he picked up the greater-than-life-sized mantle of the next great Kennedy leader upon the assassination of his brother Robert, that largely shaped his later Senate career.
The Chappaquiddick incident was not an isolated one in Kennedy's life, in terms of the lack of character shown. Teddy was the one who allegedly cheated on exams to make it through Harvard. One could rationalize that the immense pressure of living up to the Kennedy name, especially as the youngest of very accomplished brothers, made it impossible for Edward to face the prospect of failure. Ironically, it was his disgraceful (or, for us plebes, criminal) behavior at Chappaquiddick on that fateful night in 1969 that, instead of providing damage control as he hoped, actually doomed his presidential viability. Further, it likely exacerbated his Jekyll and Hyde like behavior as, simultaneously, supportive family man and womanizer, great moralizer of liberal causes and the town drunk, and so on.
An interesting and purportedly true book about the senator's above predilections was written by a close aide, Richard Burke, in the early 1990's. Although much dubiousness has been expressed about Burke's credibility because of his own personal issues, what he exposed about Kennedy, if even half-true, is explosive. For one thing, Kennedy apparently did not stop with alcohol—according to Burke he had a long-standing love affair with cocaine, which after all was the elites' drug of choice in the 1980's.
One of the many things about Kennedy's political career that liberals glossed over but never ceases to amaze me was his ill-fated attempt to steal the Democrat nomination from Jimmy Carter in 1980. Kennedy's sudden inability to articulate why he was running in friendly media interviews and, in some instances, to even string two coherent sentences together, was striking for someone who was raised to be a national leader. This was especially so given the golden opportunity he had against the hapless and vastly unpopular Carter. I can't help but believe that Burke, for all of his possible dissembling, may have been right about Kennedy's drug use during this critical period, which on top of the boozing and general debauchery may have ruined his effectiveness as a candidate and cost him his best chance at the presidency. He actually did the country a disservice, since a Kennedy-Reagan matchup would have proved far more interesting—and more of an undeniable affirmation of the country's conservative values when Reagan won—than the inevitable Carter defeat. Kennedy's stirring speech at the 1980 Democrat convention, when it was too late to do him any good, gave his supporters a heartbreaking tease of what might have been.
Another much less noble aspect of Kennedy that liberals gloss over was his contemptible treatment of honorable men like Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas during their Supreme Court nomination hearings. His horrendously false description of what he viewed as Bork's America—back-street abortions, Black Americans refused service at diners, and so on—seemed to work in dooming Bork's nomination when in fact the judge's credentials were impeccable. As a result, Kennedy's reputation-trampling became the template for future Democrat attacks on worthy candidates for judgeships and other positions. This "quality" is what made Kennedy the quintessential liberal; that is, he set the standard for using hyperemotional, over-the-top demagoguery to advance his cause and, simultaneously, take down opponents. Remember, he was the first to note the Iraq war as "George Bush's Vietnam" long before the hapless Harry Reid called it a "lost cause." This was how Kennedy "paid back" the all-too-gracious Bush for having him as an honored guest in the White House and allowing Kennedy to craft the No Child Left Behind bill with full presidential support.
Kennedy's later life, after the 1980 debacle, was spent building his resume in the Senate in the hopes of getting out from under the shadow of his brothers and Chappaquiddick. Two underlying reasons for his effectiveness were: (1) being an unabashed liberal during a period when the Democrat party was tilting further leftward than ever, and (2) putting on the Kennedy charm to woo certain members of the opposition (does the name McCain come to mind?). If Kennedy's effectiveness is measured by the amount of legislation that carries his stamp, then yes, he was an effective senator. However, the content of that legislation, when observed from the distance of history's more objective lens, will not stand up very well under the scrutiny it so rarely received while the senator was alive.
In a thoughtful article on Kennedy's religious faith, it was noted that in recent years, he privately expressed reservations about his "pro-choice" position, implying that liberal orthodoxy on the issue more or less forced his hand. Highly ironic coming from the high priest of liberalism, and telling in its exposing the utter hypocrisy of their belief system. But in reality, just another instance that marked the discordant nature of this man's tragedy-filled life.