A book that began, "What happened during...

IN 1976 I WROTE

April 13, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

IN 1976 I WROTE a book that began, "What happened during several hours on Chappaquiddick Island tells us something about what kind of person Ted Kennedy is . . . but what has happened in thousands of hours on the Senate floor and in committee hearings tells us more, I believe." Here is a reproduction from that book's index:

Central Intelligence Agency, 194, 200.

Chappaquiddick, Mass., 65, 66, 110, 119-20, 193, 199, 200, 210,

243, 244,

245, 246, 256, 262, 277.

Charlestown Navy Yard, 257.

Chavez, Cesar, 97, 98, 281.

As you can see, even a book that was centrally concerned with such mundane stuff as the "Senate Administrative Practice and Procedure Subcommittee" (27 index entries) and "Russell, Richard" (23) could not entirely avoid what Kennedy referred to as "the color in my life."

The Accident and other "color" -- drinking habits, sex life -- was overshadowing everything else about him in the Kennedy journalism of that day. That was understandable. It was inevitable. Chappaquiddick was only seven years in the past in 1976, and he was only in his second full term as a senator.

I assumed the passage of time and the growth of his senatorial skills and reputation -- already blossoming -- would change that. Obviously I was wrong. You've read a lot more about the long Good Friday night at Palm Beach recently than about any Kennedy legislative successes. You did because the Palm Beach story resurrected all the ghosts of Chappaquiddick.

Yet 22 years after Chappaquiddick, Kennedy is the fourth most senior Democrat in the Senate, and probably at least the fourth most influential. He is still liberal after all these years, yet he is also much more pragmatic and programmatic than you usually think of liberals being. He gets things done.

The non-partisan Congressional Quarterly study of the 101st Congress says of him, "He is showing [more] interest in writing laws than in serving as a lightning rod for liberal sentiment." Sometimes he can serve as a liberal lightning rod and get something done. Immigration reform. Welfare reform. Civil rights laws, such as the last major one which he led to passage over a Reagan veto. Had it not been for Ted Kennedy, Robert Bork would be a justice of the Supreme Court today. And so on and so forth.

I said you read more about the escapade in Palm Beach than about Kennedy's serious work. So did I, and I have no excuse. I have access to all the dry political science and journalism reporting and analysis -- daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, academic, journalistic. But when this story broke, zoom -- out of the ivory tower and off to the checkout line at the supermarket!

Everybody loves this stuff.

And it may even be important.

Wednesday: "Nancy Reagan The Unauthorized Biography."

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