Ted Kennedy’s Checkers speech

I was working as an intern in the office of then-Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale in the summer of 1969. Senator Kennedy’s office was down the hall and around the corner from Mondale’s on the fourth floor of the old Senate Office Building, if I remember correctly, but his cramped mail room was next door to Mondale’s office.
The Chappaquiddick accident that took the life of Mary Jo Kopechne occurred that July. Last month, in connection with the fortieth anniversary of the accident, Robert George and Dermot Quinn revisited the basic facts of the Chappaquiddick story.
In the immediate aftermath of the accident, Senator Kennedy treated the affair as a sort of crisis of state. He convened a meeting of the Kennedy administration brain trust at Hyannis Port to craft a speech that would get him out of the jam in which he found himself. Among the old hands pitching in were Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Theodore Sorensen. They were only too willing to oblige.
Kennedy gave the speech they wrote for him live on national television. Audio, video and text of the speech are available here. Kennedy waited to give the speech until he had appeared in court to resolve the traffic offense arising from the accident. The speech is a complete and utter crock.
Among the speech’s most laughable lines is this one: “Today, as I mentioned, I felt morally obligated to plead guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident.” Anything less than that would of course have involved trading on his privileged status. That was something he would never do, except when necessary. Having provided his constituents his self-serving account of the accident, Kennedy pretended to throw himself on their mercy:

The people of this State, the State which sent John Quincy Adams, and Daniel Webster, and Charles Sumner, and Henry Cabot Lodge, and John Kennedy to the United States Senate are entitled to representation in that body by men who inspire their utmost confidence. For this reason, I would understand full well why some might think it right for me to resign. For me this will be a difficult decision to make.
It has been seven years since my first election to the Senate. You and I share many memories — some of them have been glorious, some have been very sad. The opportunity to work with you and serve Massachusetts has made my life worthwhile.
And so I ask you tonight, the people of Massachusetts, to think this through with me. In facing this decision, I seek your advice and opinion. In making it, I seek your prayers — for this is a decision that I will have finally to make on my own.
It has been written a man does what he must in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles, and dangers, and pressures, and that is the basis of human morality. Whatever may be the sacrifices he faces, if he follows his conscience — the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow man — each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of the past courage cannot supply courage itself. For this, each man must look into his own soul.
I pray that I can have the courage to make the right decision. Whatever is decided and whatever the future holds for me, I hope that I shall have been able to put this most recent tragedy behind me and make some further contribution to our state and mankind, whether it be in public or private life.

The telltale hand of Theodore Sorensen can be seen in the allusion to JFK’s (and Sorensen’s) Profiles in Courage: “The stories of the past courage cannot supply courage itself. For this, each man must look into his own soul.” But Kennedy’s call on his constituents to render their verdict on him drew directly drew on the stratagem pioneered by then-President Richard Nixon in his brilliant 1952 Checkers speech.
Garry Wills gives a superb account of the Checkers speech in Nixon Agonistes. Wills reminds us that just before Nixon was to give the speech live on television before a huge national audience, Tom Dewey had telephoned Nixon on behalf of Eisenhower and essentially ordered him to resign as the vice presidential candidate at the conclusion. Dewey: “Can I say you have accepted?” Nixon: “You will have to watch the show to see — and tell them [Eisenhower’s advisers] I know something about politics too!” One measure of the speech’s success is that Eisenhower was compelled to accept Nixon’s insubordination.
Before he gets to the inside story of the speech, Wills sizes it up this way:

[Nixon’s] 1952 speech was probably a greater milestone than the presidential debate that came eight years later. Nixon first demonstrated the political uses and impact of television. In one half hour Nixon converted himself from a liability, breathing his last, to one of the few people who could add to Eisenhower’s preternatural appeal — who could gild the lilly. For the first time, people saw a living political drama on their TV sets — a man fighting for his whole career and future — and they judged him under that strain. It was an even greater achievement than it seemed. He had only a short time to prepare for it. The show, forced on him [by Eisenhower’s advisers], was meant as a form of political euthanasia. He came into the studio still reeling from distractions and new demoralizing blows….[A]t the time he went onto the TV screen in 1952, he was hunted and alone.

By contrast with Nixon, Kennedy was neither hunted nor alone. The will to believe was strong. And lacking access to the facts, what were his constituents to think?
The mail poured in. I saw it wheeled down the hall to Kennedy’s mail room in huge carts for days on end. In the mail room, staffers opened the mail and tabulated the results, overwhelming supporting Senator Kennedy’s continued service. One letter, as I recall from a military man, consisted of two words: “Carry on.”
Having looked deeply into his own soul, Senator Kennedy somehow summoned the inner strength to follow his conscience. He decided to retain his position in the Senate and continue in public life.
UPDATE: At the New York Times Opinionator blog, Tobin Harshaw plays the Bork episode right down the middle. Harshaw’s post reminds me that in 1969, the New York Times was remarkably unamused by the convenient prevarications in Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick speech. The Times’s editorials on Chappaquiddick were tough and true.

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