I cannot say many good things about this man, given that he caused the death of a young woman through recklessness and cowardice. But I can say that I believe he felt sincerely called to service; that he endured terrible tragedy, not all of it of his own making, and that no one would wish dying of brain cancer on the man.
I think these two paragraphs from the Houston Chronicle sum up my thoughts:
He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life, instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair, his florid, oversize face, his booming Boston brogue, his powerful but pained stride. He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy character who persevered, drank deeply and sang loudly. He was a Kennedy…
Born to one of the wealthiest American families, Kennedy spoke for the downtrodden in his public life while living the heedless private life of a playboy and a rake for many of his years. Dismissed early in his career as a lightweight and an unworthy successor to his revered brothers, he grew in stature over time by sheer longevity and by hewing to liberal principles while often crossing the partisan aisle to enact legislation. A man of unbridled appetites at times, he nevertheless brought a discipline to his public work that resulted in an impressive catalogue of legislative achievement across a broad landscape of social policy.
Leaving aside Mary Jo Kopechne, it must have been extraordinarily difficult for Senator Kennedy to grow up in the shadow of three such high-achieving brothers. His oldest brother, Joe, had died in World War 2. Jack Kennedy, had become President and was assassinated. And Robert Kennedy, running for President, was also assassinated. How ghastly. It is difficult to imagine the psychological tortures that that would put any man through.
Does that excuse the way he lived, the choices he made?
But it does offer a measure of explanation, and, in my mind, a measure of understanding.