(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Chappaquiddick accomplishes something very few movies do: it explores why a man made an evil choice. That is very hard to do because (as James Q. Wilson put it in his brilliant little book Moral Judgement) any explaination for why someone made a decision naturally becomes an excuse for that decision. A man beats his children now because his father beat him twenty years ago; to the extent that the beatings twenty years ago really do explain the beatings now, the man’s choices seem less culpable, and to the extent that they don’t, the man’s choices are less comprehensible. Either the explanation of the evil act is not satisfactory as an explanation, in which case we are left unsatisfied, or the explanation of the evil act does satisfy as an explanation, in which case the act seems less evil.
Chappaquiddick does not compromise on the fact that Teddy Kennedy’s choices were evil. For that reason, it is getting a lot of attention from right-wingers who have long waited for some sort of justice to be done upon the Kennedy family’s crimes. Chappaquiddick shows, in ways that would be impossible for any fair-minded observer to deny, that Teddy Kennedy did evil things, and that is a sort of justice for which we have indeed waited long.
But if you walked out of this movie saying to yourself, “boy, Teddy Kennedy really did evil things in Chappaquiddick, didn’t he?” you missed the point of the movie.
The filmmakers have set out to explain, without excusing, what Kennedy did. And they succeed brilliantly.
I must reluctantly admit that part of the formula for success in this endeavor was for the film to steer completely clear of the sexual side of Kennedy’s depravity. This is unsatisfying to my sense of justice, in light of the fact that Kennedy spent his whole adult life – long after Chappaquiddick – leaving behind him a trail of harrassed and attacked women, not only in his own workplace and on his own payroll but in restraurants, airplanes, you name it. Full justice is not done to Kennedy’s depravity in this movie. But that is probably necessary, because such matters probably could not be depicted or even suggested without ruining the project of explaining rather than condemning.
The traditional story of the burden of growing up in the shadow of Jack and Bobby – and of Joe, Jr., who died a war hero – is of course an important theme. At the beginning of the movie, we see Teddy being interviewed for an upcoming television broadcast about Jack’s legacy. The occasion is the immanent landing of Neil Armstrong on the moon – Jack’s big challenge to the nation in 1961. Teddy displays the extraordinary Kennedy eloquence, which he possesses in equal measure to his brother, then suddenly cuts off the interview when the pain of contemplating his place in his brother’s shadow becomes too great. Then he lets a woman die on Chappaquiddick, and it’s all over the news. Then the moon landing comes and the interview airs, and the whole nation watches it with Chappaquiddick in mind.
But this movie places greater stress on the role of Teddy’s iron-fisted father, Joseph, Sr. Teddy, who is a vain and foolish man but has a real conscience, keeps wavering between doing right and protecting himself. He does not always make the evil choice, and when he does, he does not always stick to it. A cousin who was with him on the night of his disaster keeps urging him to do the right thing – to report the incident, to admit that he was the one driving, to resign his Senate seat rather than keep it at the cost of ghastly lies.
And every step of the way, Joseph, Sr. and his army of highly comptent schemers is there to demand more lies, more subversion of the law, more destruction of the innocent to protect the guilty. And constantly, constantly reminding him that he has always been the family screwup, and will always be the family screwup.
Explanations of evil tend to function as excuses for it because they demand our human sympathy. What Kennedy did was evil. But let no one judge too harshly anyone who has had to grow up the son of that kind of man, and make moral choices while still professionally under his power. No, not even in a case of aggravated manslaughter – not even in the case of a man who escaped punishment for aggravated manslaughter, and got off with a slap on the wrist for leaving the scene of an accident, by a systematic campaign of lies and influence-peddling. Condemn, by all means, but spare also a charitable thought.
Reserve the venting of your spleen for the millions upon millions of Kennedy idolators, whose folly is given ample display at the end of the movie. They were not sons of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. They had no tyrant threatening to destroy them if they followed their conscience. And they chose cognitive dissonance and irresponsible moral relativism – anything rather than permit themselves to confront the monstrosity of the idol they had made in their own image.
And yet, and yet . . . I am left contemplating the contrast between Teddy Kennedy and another family screwup of a great American political dynasty. George W. Bush was the Teddy of the Bush clan for many years. Then he found Jesus, kicked the bottle, stayed home with his wife and became an honorable man. You may or may not join me in attributing the primary difference to the inscrutable mystery of divine providence, selecting one man and not another for the gifts of the Spirit. And I will grant that George H. W. Bush, tough as he undoubtedly was, was not the detestable tyrant Joseph Kennedy, Sr. was.
But that image of W. as the road Teddy didn’t take must heighten the imperative that we remember, not without some sympathy, what a monster Teddy really was.