AN AMERICAN VIEW

Comeuppance for a Kennedy

Before us appeared the man undone by the perils of plenty and the temptations of privilege, by booze and sleek women

FRED BRUNING November 11 1991
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Comeuppance for a Kennedy

Before us appeared the man undone by the perils of plenty and the temptations of privilege, by booze and sleek women

FRED BRUNING November 11 1991

Comeuppance for a Kennedy

AN AMERICAN VIEW

Before us appeared the man undone by the perils of plenty and the temptations of privilege, by booze and sleek women

FRED BRUNING

Anita Hill says Clarence Thomas spoke to her of dirty movies. He becomes a Supreme Court justice. She returns to academia. Teddy Kennedy repents.

The Hill-Thomas controversy was perhaps most memorable in that final aspect—the cruel, consummate and inevitable comeuppance of Edward M. Kennedy. As Anita Hill levelled charges of sexual harassment, as Clarence Thomas shrewdly ducked her allegations, as Republican snipers fired at will, as Democrats cowered in a corner, as witnesses floated one crackpot theory after another (woman scorned, woman crazed, woman on the make), there sat the senior senator from Massachusetts as though cut loose from the world—a sad and distracted soul, his handsomeness now only faintly sketched under mottled skin, the fire doused, the eyes averted, the tongue mostly stilled.

That image of Kennedy on national television was the clincher. Before us appeared the man undone, not by bullets from a mail-order rifle or a fanatic’s pistol, nor even by ceaseless right-wing slander, but by the mere occupational hazards of life in America, by the perils of plenty and the temptations of privilege, by the booze and sleek women and the buzz of power and the howl of the crowds and the awful, irresistible extravagance of it all.

This is what we sell 24 hours a day. It is what we tell our kids in beer ads and blue-jean commercials and mindless movies about millionaires and their streetwalker girlfriends— that it’s all OK, that anything goes, that you’re No. 1, that history is dead, that tomorrow is for saps, that nothing is worth the wait, that those who collect the most toys win, that we are a tribe of takers and too bad for the rest. No pain, no gain? Who says?

Teddy Kennedy ran the streak as long as he could. Chappaquiddick denied him the presidency so he settled for the Senate. Over 29

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

years, he earned respect as a legislator and became the most durable liberal presence on Capitol Hill. But he was careless with the franchise. If he had a reputation as a tough negotiator and skilled lawmaker, there were less salutary assessments too. Teddy on a tear? Wasn’t Teddy always?

Then comes Easter in Palm Beach. William Kennedy Smith, Teddy’s nephew, picks up a woman in a bar and she later claims rape. There are stories about Teddy Kennedy drinking with his son, Patrick, and Willie Smith before the woman arrives. There is talk about Kennedy loping through the family mansion minus his trousers. He has no worry about the rape charges, but the whole thing looks bad— another of Ted’s embarrassing adventures. Not much Kennedy says by way of explanation sounds convincing. Mostly, what he says sounds pathetic.

Coast to coast, he is a joke. The late-night comedians love it. The cartoonists go crazy. Teddy Kennedy, fat, foolish and out of control. Then arrives the Clarence Thomas business.

George Bush nominates to the Supreme Court a fellow with one year’s experience on the federal bench and the judicial insights of a kick boxer. Because he will do most anything to

assure himself another four years in the role of Preppy Who Rules the Universe, Bush denies that the Thomas nomination is an issue of race and insists, on the contrary, that Thomas simply is the best person in the country for the job. Oh, Thomas is black? Oh, he would take the place of another black, the retired Thurgood Marshall? Pure coincidence.

This is one slick play. Now Bush, who all the while is denouncing quotas and affirmative action, has the Democrats where he wants them. He senses many black Americans will endorse Thomas because, if you aren’t white in this country, you better grab what comes along for fear of coming up empty. He knows that Thomas’s weird conservatism will drive most Democrats crazy, but now these same Democrats in their fine suits and starched collars will have to explain to minority voters why Clarence Thomas, a black man, happens not to be the right black man for the job. Beautiful.

It gets better. There are whispers about Thomas and a problem he may have had with a former assistant, a woman named Anita Hill. Reporters nose around and, finally, the story breaks. Anita Hill, a law professor in Oklahoma, says she was hounded in most unacceptable fashion by Clarence Thomas, who, by now, looks like a sure thing for the country’s highest court.

Hearings reopen, the Republicans annihilate Anita Hill, and the one person who might save her, Teddy Kennedy, utters barely a word because this is a matter involving a man and a woman, and Teddy Kennedy long ago has lost the right to comment. Later, on the Senate floor, Kennedy makes a little speech and Republicans eat him alive. Orrin Hatch from Utah mentions Chappaquiddick. Hatch is supposed to be Kennedy’s friend.

In late October, Kennedy reclaimed his dignity, and maybe more than that. He went to Harvard for a political address but the mission had a personal side. The senator said he knew he had let people down, the people in this society who need him most, and that, pushing 60, he had to take stock. “I recognize my own shortcomings—the faults in the conduct of my private life,” Kennedy said. “I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them.”

Yes, a poll showed Kennedy with a disastrous public-approval rating and, yes, he faces re-election in 1994 and yes, of course, his remarks played to those concerns. But no one goes back to his alma mater and stands before an audience of young people and admits he is a flawed and hurting person unless he is trying desperately to get well.

Some thought Kennedy was going to resign on the spot. Instead, he pulled himself up and talked about education, and health insurance and gun control. He said a new civil rights bill was a “well-deserved defeat for those who would misuse race as a political weapon.” He talked, as well, about equal treatment for women and did not hesitate to use the words “sexual harassment.” This was Kennedy as he was supposed to be—assured, up-front, aggressive—but the speech came too late for Anita Hill. Does time remain for Teddy Kennedy?