Fifty years on, the moon landing of July 1969 still seems an extraordinary feat: perhaps even more extraordinary in retrospect, as the accomplishments of science revealed the wonders of the universe.
And yet, it is not very edifying to recall that this wasn’t the only topic of conversation among the scribes and Pharisees around that time. Particularly the scribes of Fleet Street, who, gathered in the taverns and bars, were focused on an entirely different topic: the accident, which occurred just two days later, at Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. A young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, had drowned in a car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy, the brightest scion of the powerful Kennedy political dynasty.
Misjudging the road, Kennedy had driven his vehicle off the one-lane bridge at Chappaquiddick. The car dropped into the water, he swam free and didn’t report the accident for 10 hours. Mary Jo died in the submerged automobile.
The mysteries of the moon and the awesomeness of space travel were put aside for animated discussion about a human failing in a person of high position. Did Kennedy’s behaviour show a character unfit for office? Could the young woman have been saved if he had reported the incident immediately? Was alcohol involved, asked the imbibing scribes? And what was a married, 37-year-old Senator doing late at night with a 28-year-old secretary anyway?
Schadenfreude – that neat German definition of pleasure at the misfortune of others – peppered the conversation at Fleet Street’s famed watering hole, El Vino. Jokes and laughter were heard at the prospect of bringing down political ambition. Ted Kennedy would never run for presidential office now, said the political sages of Fleet Street, for he had failed the test of character at Chappaquiddick. And then it was recalled that he had been thrown out of Harvard for cheating in a college exam: another indication of character weakness.
The conversation fulfilled a Malcolm Muggeridge observation that human beings are often more interested in who is sleeping with whom than in the finer points of political office. Yet, in retrospect, everything is reviewed again. What happened at Chappaquiddick was indeed a tragedy – a young woman’s life was lost – and it did put an end, effectively, to Ted Kennedy’s highest political ambitions. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, and was fined.
But there’s another point that only occurred to me later. Anyone can make a mistake – even a catastrophic mistake. Anyone can panic and make the wrong call, or yield to the all too human instinct of saving one’s own skin first. Yet individuals can also recover from the errors they make, and Kennedy did, eventually, gain respect as an elder statesman.
The issue of character in a politician is still relevant. And Muggeridge’s observation also remains true – and will continue to be so, even if and when we land on Mars.
It’s very nice that the England cricket team’s victory has brought so much jollity to the nation. But it does remind me of a classic story about the difference between French and English priorities.
A passenger departing from Calais sees a newspaper poster announcing: “Famous philosopher dies.” On arriving at Dover, he observes that the newspaper headlines are: “England – cricket latest.”
Cricket seems an entirely harmless pursuit which brings, as the French would say, much joie de vivre. Philosophy, on the other hand, really should be disturbing.
It seems that every tomboy girl in a children’s story is nowadays in danger of being rewritten as a transgender role. That rules out Jo, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, as a straight female, since she’s constantly affirming her masculine side and even calls herself “the man of the family”.
Many a girl has been a young tomboy without aspiring to change her gender. Yvonne Wilding, a 59-year-old woman, has written to the Times to say that as a youngster she loved boyish things like adventure and risk-taking and loathed “pretty” girlish clothes which her parents suggested. But she married a man, happily, and has three children. Were she a teenager today, she fears, she might well be pushed into becoming transgender.
This is why sex education is such a hot potato. What children are taught, as a reflection of contemporary values, really does matter.
Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4
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