Ted Kennedy & Leadership

When Ted Kennedy died a couple of months ago the media launched a full-scale examination of his personal life and legacy as a politician. The consensus opinion was that Kennedy was a flawed man but an outstanding political leader. My question is, can a man really be both? The Bible answer is, no. Please understand that I’m not talking Democrats and Republicans here. I’m talking about God’s standard and qualifications for outstanding leadership.

I should begin by defining the word “outstanding.” I have no doubts that Ted Kennedy was an “outstanding” political leader in the worldly sense of the word. Even his staunchest political foes concede that he was uncommonly skilled at getting legislation passed. He had a knack for finding common ground between the liberal left and the conservative right. He understood the concept of give and take. He saw compromise as a necessary tool to advance his idea of the greater good. If he couldn’t get the whole pie, he would systematically take little pieces wherever he could until he had the bulk of it. That strategy only works if you have a long time to employ it. Fortunately for Kennedy, he kept winning elections and ended up serving many terms as Senator of Massachusetts.

But now let me tell you why Ted Kennedy simply didn’t measure up to God’s definition of “outstanding”: Kennedy’s life was consistently marked by moral failures. You see, when God’s word deals with leadership, it doesn’t focus upon physical appearance, oratorical skills, charisma, or the ability to compromise. It focuses upon character. Proverbs 16:12 says: “It is an abomination for kings to commit wickedness, for a throne is established by righteousness.” Proverbs 29:2 says: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice. But when a wicked man rules, the people groan.” Proverbs 39:4-5 says: “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for princes intoxicating drink, lest they drink and forget the law, and pervert the justice of the afflicted.”

These are just three of many passages that teach that outstanding leadership hinges upon outstanding character and morality. In God’s eyes, a man’s public life is only as good as his private life. Wielding political power properly can only be done by those whose conduct is above reproach. As Proverbs 25:28 puts it, “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls.” Even Ted Kennedy’s most ardent defenders must admit that he failed this litmus test.

Again, I’m not picking on Kennedy because he was a Democrat. The fact is, many noted Republicans have failed this test too. For example, the adultery in which Mark Sanford, the current Governor of South Carolina, has engaged places him in the same category. This isn’t a “Republican vs. Democrat thing,” and I’m not advocating one party and putting down the other. My point is that any political leader, from any party, should be a person of high moral fiber. During Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in December of 1998, we learned that many people are perfectly willing to draw a line of separation between a man’s personal life and his ability to lead. But the problem with that way of thinking is that it just isn’t Biblical. And if nobody else in the world is interested in being Biblical, we Christians must be.

Serious character flaws began showing up early in Ted Kennedy’s life. In 1951, while he was a student at Harvard, he paid a friend to take a Spanish language exam for him. He and the friend were quickly caught and expelled from the school. After two years of service in the army, Kennedy was allowed to reenroll at Harvard in the summer of 1953 and he did graduate in 1956.

He then enrolled in Virginia University’s law school. It was there that he met Joan Bennett, the woman who would become his first wife. That marriage was marked by her alcoholism and his adulterous womanizing. Ultimately, it was ended in 1982 when she asked for a divorce. Since the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce, a divorced Catholic must also get an annulment in order to remarry and still be allowed to take Communion. Kennedy requested such an annulment on the grounds that his marriage vow to Joan had not been honestly made. Joan did not oppose the grounds or the annulment.

It was during Ted’s marriage to Joan that the infamous Chappaquiddick incident occurred. On July 18, 1969, Kennedy and a female companion, Mary Jo Kopechne, were driving home from a party on Chappaquiddick Island in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Kennedy drove the car off a bridge and into a pond. It was never officially proven that Kennedy was driving drunk, but he had been drinking at the party.

Following the crash, Kennedy escaped from the car, swam to shore, and left the scene. There is still some confusion over the exact chain of events that took place after that, but one thing is fact: Kennedy did not report the accident to the local police until the next morning. By that time, the car had been found and Kopechne’s body had been recovered by a fire department diver.

The position of the body inside the car led the diver to believe that she had survived for several hours in an air pocket inside the car before finally succumbing to death by asphyxiation. As he described it, she was “too buoyant to be full of water.” If this contention was indeed true, it meant that if Kennedy had reported the accident to police in a timely manner Kopechne would have survived. But the contention, though still debated, was never proven and the official cause of death was listed as drowning. Either way, Kopechne died an awful death.  

To this day, speculation abounds as to whether or not Kennedy was drunk that night and whether or not he and Kopechne were intimately acquainted. I’ll not add to that speculation. All I’ll say is that leaving a helpless woman to die while you flee the scene shows a real lack of a moral streak. It was small consolation to Kopechne’s family and friends when Kennedy was only charged with leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended sentence.

In the years that followed, Kennedy’s behavior increasingly became fodder for the tabloids. In 1989, while he was on vacation in Europe, he was photographed having sex on a motorboat. In 1990, biographer Michael Kelly published a profile of him that characterized him as “an aging Irish boy clutching a bottle and diddling a blonde.” Obviously, Kennedy’s conduct during those years was not the brand that allows God to use a political leader mightily to accomplish great things.

On Easter weekend, 1991, Kennedy was at a family get-together at the Kennedy’s estate in Palm Beach, Florida. He paid a late-night visit to a local bar with his son, Patrick, and nephew, William Kennedy Smith. At the bar, the two young men met two ladies, Michelle Cassone and Patricia Bowman. The girls then accompanied the group back to the Palm Beach home. Smith and Bowman went for a walk along the beach where, allegedly, he raped her.

In a nationally publicized trial, Smith was acquitted of the charge, but he never claimed that he didn’t have sex with Bowman. His claim was that the sex was consensual. The whole incident was a major scandal for the Kennedy’s. As for Ted, the family patriarch, he again found himself in the middle of a situation where questions of drinking and carousing swirled around him and called his character into question. He certainly should have been setting a better example for his son and nephew that night.

Still, it has been argued that Kennedy’s greatest moral failure had nothing to do with womanizing or boozing. It was, instead, the break he made from Catholicism’s classifying of abortion as a great evil. Despite the fact that Kennedy lived his entire life as a practicing Catholic, he became a champion for abortion rights. Catholic author Michael Sean Winters has publicly asked the question, “If Ted Kennedy had stuck to his pro-life position, would both the Democratic party and the country have embraced the abortion on demand policies that we have now?” Winters’ answer to that question is, “I don’t think so.”

Speaking for myself, I’d hate to think that I played any role whatsoever, let alone a prominent one, in the passing of legislation that allowed for the deaths of over fifty million unborn babies. You just can’t read passages such as Psalm 139:13-18; Psalm 22:9-10; Jeremiah 1:4-5; Isaiah 44:1-2,24; Isaiah 49:1-3; Exodus 4:11; Exodus 21:22-25; Luke 1:13-17; and Luke 1:26-45 and not understand that God is very much an advocate of life in the womb. Neither can you read passages such as Proverbs 31:8-9; Psalm 39:1-3; Psalm 94:20-23; and Isaiah 5:20 and not understand that He isn’t pleased with any politician who leads the charge for abortion. Remember that nothing is morally or politically right that is Biblically wrong.

So, again I say that Ted Kennedy flatly didn’t measure up to God’s definition of an “outstanding” political leader. In his later years, he did curb his drinking and do his best to be faithful to his second wife, Vicki. However, much of this reformation was the product of his increased age and a body that was worn out by decades of hard living. I don’t doubt that the elderly Kennedy was a man of better morality and character than the younger one. But let’s not go crazy and try to repackage Kennedy as a man he wasn’t, as some in the media have tried to do.

In the end, was Ted Kennedy a political icon? Yes. Did he love his family? Yes. Was he a man who persevered through mind-numbing tragedies the rest of us will never face? Yes. Was he one of the most influential Senators this nation ever produced? Yes. But was he an outstanding political leader in God’s eyes? No way. The Bible is just too crystal clear in its case to prove otherwise. And the most tragic aspect of that is that Kennedy’s family and our nation are the worse for it.

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2 Responses to Ted Kennedy & Leadership

  1. Chuck Maglaughlin says:

    I met Ted Kennedy in a most inauspicious way. It was 1973. I heard he was landing soon at the Youngstown,Ohio airport. I wanted to see my second Kennedy in person. I had refused to shake the outstretched hand of JFK during the run for the White House in 1960. After all, my parents were Republicans! I arrived just in time as Teddy’s jet landed. I was standing in the front row as he exited the plane. It was strangely quiet. So I decided to use my “spiritual slingshot” to make things interesting. I raised my briefcase with its “Guess Who’s Coming Again” bumper sticker and held it nice and steady as Teddy came down the row. He came to me, stopped, and read it to himself. I then turned it over, and there was my, “He Loves You This Much,” sticker. He read that, too. I was just beginning to feel so proud of myself when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, without warning, came the goons of the Secret Service. I was thrown against a wall and frisked. Despite my protests, like “What in the ….are you doing?,” I was dragged kicking and screaming into a warehouse and brow beaten for several minutes. Like-“Who do you think you are?” I replied, “I asked you first.” Seems the jist was I had no right to do what I was doing, which was never defined. They finally let me go, uncuffing me. Ted’s posse had left in a motorcade and I left, befuddled and dazed, to go back to work in my little Mazda. Pride goes before the fall. I’ve never told this story before.

    • russellmckinney says:

      Chuck,
      I’m like you in that I don’t want to see anyone die without Christ. When I get to heaven, if I find that Ted Kennedy is there, I’ll be overjoyed. I do think the man accomplished some good as a politician, and I do think there was a genuine concern for the poor and underprivileged, a concern that is typically not found in the wealthy. I don’t think I would have gone the “spiritual slingshot” route (lol), but it sounds like you certainly made a gospel point with Ted. I applaud you for such evangelistic zeal.

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