Play the word association game regarding any well-known political figure and a noun attributed to them in their moment of greatest failing will almost certainly come to mind.
Richard Nixon: Watergate
Bill Clinton: Monica Lewinsky
George W. Bush: Mission Accomplished
Ted Kennedy: Chappaquiddick
Nixon’s diplomatic efforts with China, Clinton’s stewardship of an economic boom and Bush’s commitment to the successful troop surge in Iraq can all be easily brushed aside by massive failings in these low moments of their leadership.
With the death of Ted Kennedy on Tuesday, the drive off the bridge that killed Mary Jo Kopechne 40 years ago still looms as the singular moment that crushed Kennedy’s Presidential hopes and forever remained an albatross.
Much like the aforementioned Presidents, it is a detraction from a political marked by the true bipartisanship that has all but disappeared from Washington in the last decade.
Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, a political polar opposite of Kennedy, was quoted in a good Los Angeles Times biography as having said the reason he got into national politics was to drive Kennedy out of office.
“As the past 26 years have amply indicated, I have failed, and I have come to appreciate that the country is better for it,” Hatch said in 2002. Hatch developed a professional relationship with Kennedy and co-sponsored legislation with him, including a ban on cloning human embryos as part of stem cell research.
Kennedy was most recently a leading sponsor of Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. The law was part of Kennedy’s legacy of education-related legislation, although the bill has ultimately been underfunded with an overemphasis on standardized testing.
There is inescapable irony, too, in the timing of Kennedy’s death with the Obamas vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard and the health care reform legislation Kennedy championed for decades up for a continued bruising battle after Labor Day.
The political gravity that comes with the Kennedy name will leave a huge hole, even for his staunchest foes. The errors he made one evening 40 years ago will also be an irrevocable part of that legacy aside his accomplishments.