Edward Kennedy, an example of disgrace followed by redemption

Caroline Frost
August 28, 2009 12:00am

VIRTUES or vices - what would you rather read about? Edward Kennedy possessed the full mixture of both such attributes that defined his famous family.

But it's clear from obituaries this week what of Kennedy remains in the collective consciousness. It comes down to one word - Chappaquiddick.

They say no one's as bad as the worst thing they've ever done. That will be unless you're Teddy Kennedy and in 1969 you drove a car that went off a bridge in Martha's Vineyard, killing your companion, Mary Jo Kopechne.

His negligence put paid to his presidential hopes and Kennedy, then in his mid-30s, called his own actions "indefensible".

But in the 40 years after the tragedy, Kennedy did more than anyone else to promote the civil rights, health and economic wellbeing of American people. President Barack Obama called him the "greatest senator of our time".

Another politician went through his own baptism of fire a little earlier. John Profumo was Britain's War Secretary in 1963 when it emerged he had been embroiled in an affair with Christine Keeler, a callgirl also enjoying the attentions of a Soviet attache.

Within days of Profumo's inevitable resignation and fall from grace, he presented himself at a London East End refuge centre. He stayed there for 40 years raising funds, expanding youth training and helping with the washing up.

But Profumo himself acknowledged that all people would remember of him was the Keeler scandal.

The same thing happens for people still alive. Did you know that a former champion athlete living in the US has raised millions of dollars for charity, is an ambassador for the Dyslexic Association and, would you believe it, one of the country's most successful dog breeders?

Not interested? Not until I mention he was the diver who hit his head on the board at the 1988 Olympics. Better yet, he had been secretly diagnosed with HIV several months before he bled in the water, thereby "risking his rivals' health".

Never mind that Greg Louganis was a quadruple gold medallist and the only diver in history to defend both his titles. The hungry media and fans already had their news.

My job was once solely writing obituaries, and it's fascinating business - the challenge of capturing the aspect of a person's character, the part of their life that sets them apart from everyone else.

It has always bemused me that, tucked away in the two lines after a list of amazing and unique feats, we learn that he or she "leaves a partner and two children".

If we stop to consider how much time we spend with our families - walking in the park, watching television, eating dinner - and how key to our happiness this time is, it becomes bizarre how little airtime it gets.

As with all other news, so with obituaries - happiness doesn't mean headlines, which is why we've never heard as much about Edward Kennedy as we did in 1969.

But it would be a shame and an oversight if, in the relish with which we greet public disgrace, we leave no room for redemption.