We are enjoined not to speak ill of the dead. But, when an entire nation — or, at any rate, its “mainstream” media culture — declines to speak the truth about the dead, we are certainly entitled to speak ill of such false eulogists. In its coverage of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s passing, America’s TV networks are creepily reminiscent of those plays Sam Shepard used to write about some dysfunctional inbred hardscrabble Appalachian household where there’s a baby buried in the backyard but everyone agreed years ago never to mention it.
In this case, the unmentionable corpse is Mary Jo Kopechne, 1940–1969. If you have to bring up the, ah, circumstances of that year of decease, keep it general, keep it vague. As Kennedy flack Ted Sorensen put it in Time magazine: “Both a plane crash in Massachusetts in 1964 and the ugly automobile accident on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969 almost cost him his life.”
That’s the way to do it! An “accident,” “ugly” in some unspecified way, just happened to happen — and only to him, nobody else. Ted’s the star, and there’s no room to namecheck the bit players. What befell him was . . . a thing, a place. As Joan Vennochi wrote in the Boston Globe: “Like all figures in history — and like those in the Bible, for that matter — Kennedy came with flaws. Moses had a temper. Peter betrayed Jesus. Kennedy had Chappaquiddick, a moment of tremendous moral collapse.”