The historian Theodore H. White’s autobiography, In Search of History, divides the undergraduate body of Harvard College of his day into three categories: the White Men, the Gray Men, and the Meatballs. The author classifies himself as a Meatball—a poor kid from the slums of Boston who commuted to college, unable to afford the dormitory rent or the social life in Cambridge. The Gray Men, in White’s scheme, were the children of the bourgeoisie, earnest upward strivers who took their studies seriously, but lacked the social status of their richer classmates. These were the White Men.
These were the sons of the very rich, the graduates of the very best prep schools, the firmest believers in the gentleman’s “C.” These young men saw the insides of the social clubs on Mount Auburn Street as often as they saw the inside of Widener Library, and their classmates watched in wonder as they trooped off, in black tie, to their revels. Life, they knew, promised them glittering prizes, whether they worked hard at their studies or not. In law, on Wall Street—even, for some, in politics—whatever they wanted in life was theirs for the taking.
Teddy Kennedy was the ultimate White Man: the son of a rich ambassador, the younger brother of a U.S. senator. He was the best football player of his football-playing family, and the stories of his carousals at the Owl Club—a jockish, raffish place—persist to this day. Life treated Teddy generously, and he lived it with a vengeance.
For the clubmen of the Ivy League in those days, academic work was a bothersome intrusion into the happy life they went to college to lead. Free at last from the strictures of their stern New England prep schools, equipped with cars, cash, and abundant access to liquor stores and women’s colleges, they sowed their oats and, more often than not, felt annoyed by the demands of their course work.
And so it was that every club kept a backfile of term papers for the most popular courses, available for club members to recycle as they wished. The enrollment rosters of the laxly graded, huge lecture courses read like the invitation list to a debutante cotillion. Strict observance of academic honor—so much a part of life for the Meatballs and the Gray Men—was a foreign concept to many of the White Men. After all, hadn’t Henry Ford II gotten bounced from Yale for buying a term paper and then gone on to exactly as rich and successful a career in business as he would have had he played by the rules that bound other men?
It was against this background, this insouciant, Tom Buchanan–like view of life that holds that people of the right class never have to answer for their deeds, that young Edward Moore Kennedy sent in a substitute to take his test in Spanish C. He was caught—though undoubtedly others of his time did the same or worse and got away with it—and rusticated to the U.S. Army for two years.
For a convivial lad with a taste for parties, the peacetime Army was not the worst of fates. Harvard and the family kept the matter quiet, and, in due course, young Ted was taken back into the college and awarded his bachelor’s degree. He went on to the University of Virginia’s law school (a pleasant, gentlemanly place), passed the bar, did a quick turn as an assistant district attorney, and, as soon as he was of constitutional age, was sent forthwith to the Kennedy family seat in the United States Senate.
His was just the sort of life a White Man might expect.
The deaths of his brothers stung him deeply, hurting him in dark, secret places he might not have known existed. Those who know him say he aged and grew in the years after Jack and Bobby died, taking responsibility on his shoulders as he never had before. He now had to cope with an aged mother, a crippled father, and three sets of children who looked to him for guidance.
But old ways die hard, and a man who comes to maturity believing he can escape the consequences of his actions is in powerful danger of finding himself unable to change his ways.
Whatever happened on that dark summer night in Chappaquiddick we will probably never know. Only Teddy knows—if even he does—and, in the decade since Mary Jo Kopechne died, he has been unwilling to expand on the cryptic and confusing statements he made at the time.
Why should he? He asked for—and received—an overwhelming vote of confidence from the citizens of the state, and the nation, after the accident. Another man would have seen his political career in ruins after an incident like Chappaquiddick. Kennedy found himself to be an object of sympathy.
He forfeited his driver’s license for a year, he settled a handsome sum on the Kopechne family, and he lost his position as majority whip of the Senate. All of these were minor nuisances for a man of his wealth and power.
When writer Aaron Latham asked him about it last year, Kennedy would not talk about what the events at Chappaquiddick mean to his political career. “I’m really not the one to ask for a judgment,” he said, “because it’s a judgment about my character. I certainly have a hope that people would evaluate it from a total experience. Total performance. What contribution I’ve been able to make.”
Spoken like a true White Man.