Kennedy scandal: a fix for gossip junkies On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

April 15, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- BY NOW anyone who doesn't live in a cave high in the Himalayas knows all about the allegations of rape at the Kennedy family estate in Palm Beach. If there has ever been a case of media overkill, it is this one.

It is one thing for the tabloids and gossip weeklies to go bananas; this is a story made for them. But in this case, ostensibly serious newspapers have been caught up into providing lengthy daily reports that rarely -- to usethe jargon of the trade -- "advance the story" by reporting new and relevant developments. Their headlines may not be as catchy as those in the tabs, but their content is the same kind of fix for the gossip junkies. It is a case of lowest common denominator, journalism.

Thus, for example, one day the Washington Post offered a story more than a column long reporting that the lawyers for suspect William Kennedy Smith, a nephew of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, are seeking information that might discredit his unnamed accuser -- a strategy that hardly qualifies as news in any rape case. The same day, the New York Times offered an equally enlightening although more modest report -- less than a column of type -- that the woman in the case was "very distraught and was screaming rape" when she was picked up by friends outside the Kennedy estate at 4:30 a.m. March 30. Imagine that.

Nor were these stories isolated aberrations. The Times has been particularly assiduous. The day before the report on the screaming it published a piece, again under a column in length, describing the Kennedy estate and some of its history and disclosing that another visitor on the fateful night had found the bedrooms "looked like a boys' dormitory" because the beds were unmade and clothing was scattered around the floor.

A couple of days earlier the Post informed us, in a story running two full columns, that, as the headline put it, "Palm Beach Revels in Latest Scandal." Not to be outdone, the Times had two stories totaling two columns. One reported that Smith had given police samples of his hair and blood. The other discussed how the clumsy handling of the incident by the Kennedys showed how the "once vaunted Kennedy organization" doesn't function in such crises as it did, for example, during the Chappaquiddick episode. Considering that happened almost 22 years ago, it hardly seems surprising if there has been some organizational atrophy.

Given that piece of history, no one could argue that any incident involving Ted Kennedy, women and booze isn't news. But at some point, we are going to have to recognize eventually that Kennedy in a saloon is not the same story it was when he was a serious possibility to run for president. That scenario hasn't been valid since his abortive challenge to President Jimmy Carter 11 years ago. Kennedy is not a Gary Hart, flaunting convention as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination just four years ago this month. If there is anyone harboring notions of another Kennedy campaign, it has been an extremely well-kept secret.

In this case, moreover, Kennedy and his son Patrick, a state legislator in Rhode Island, were quickly cleared of involvement in any sex crime -- thus removing from the equation any sophistry about how the voters are entitled to know about the conduct of tax-paid officeholders.

The bottom line is that this is now a case centering on nephew William Smith, a fourth-year medical student at Georgetown University. It may be argued that Smith has benefited from being a member of the Kennedy clan, and thus must pay the penalty of notoriety in less auspicious circumstances. But even if you buy that line, Smith is by no stretch of the imagination a public figure.

The story is not, of course, totally without news value. Anything that Ted Kennedy does is newsworthy up to a point simply because of his family, personal history and celebrity. If he uses that celebrity to draw attention to his political causes, then he must expect it to draw less welcome attention at other times. And there were valid questions to be raised about whether the Palm Beach police were pursuing the case with an excess of deference because the rich and powerful Kennedys were involved. That has been known to happen in communities of the beautiful people.

But the coverage has reached a point at which you wish someone would say: Enough already about the Kennedys, enough already.

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