Chappaquiddick: the Sequel

May 17, 1991

Palm Beach police say they may file obstruction of justice charges in the rape case involving Sen. Edward Kennedy's nephew, William Kennedy Smith. They don't say who they think may have obstructed justice. It is possible that the senator, himself, may have. He denies it unequivocally, but his conduct in the days immediately after the rape allegation strikes us as improper, to say the least.

His conduct before the rape allegation was also improper. A 58-year-old man who wakes up a 24-year-old son and a 30-year-old nephew in the middle of the night to go drinking and seek out female companionship is a sad spectacle. That aspect is probably nobody's business but the family's. The way he dealt with the police is everybody's business, however. Those who write the laws are supposed to set a law-abiding example for everyone else.

Senator Kennedy said he was not open and cooperative with the Palm Beach police because he did not understand that a serious crime had been charged. He was told that his nephew had been accused of "sexual assault or sexual battery," according to his son, Patrick. The senator concedes this but says he didn't realize that could mean "rape." That is pathetic. He has been a lawyer for 32 years; a U.S. senator for 28; a former Judiciary Committee chairman, and an assistant prosecutor of criminal cases early in his career.

Even if Senator Kennedy's behavior were technically legal, it would be dismaying. This is, after all, a reprise of the 1969 Chappaquiddick scandal. Then, in a case involving Mr. Kennedy's driving (perhaps under the influence) and the death of a young woman, the youthful senator was saved from criminal prosecution by what appeared to many observers to have been a blatant obstruction of justice orchestrated by clever advisers. Now the senator may have become the clever adviser. Mr. Smith, whose guilt or innocence has yet to be decided, is seen as following a Chappaquiddick strategy rather than providing his side of the story in a straight-forward way.

Kennedy-haters are not surprised. Admirers of Senator Kennedy, who have argued that he matured and learned responsibility and compassion for life's victims at Chappaquiddick, which helped him become an outstanding public servant, are surprised. Some must even feel betrayed. It appears that what he really learned at Chappaquiddick was how to protect one's self and one's own from the consequences of irresponsible behavior.

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