The moment it became clear that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy would run for president, Chappaquiddick jokes began to be circulated privately.
Today, many of these jokes are being seen in print and heard on the air. Reaction to them is mixed. Some people think the jokes are in bad taste. Others laugh first and then say the joke was in bad taste. Some see nothing wrong with the jokes.
Inasmuch as topical comment and humor appear in this space, it has been necessary for me to consider carefully what my policy on Chappaquiddick ought to be. The issue is: In dealing with an accident that involved death, is it possible to construct a joke that will not be in bad taste?
Let me be specific. Here are two examples that are in circulation now:
The first is, "Life is so strange. Millions of Americans are struggling to keep their heads above water, and who are they turning to? Ted Kennedy!"
The second is, "We have finally hit upon a solution to the Iranian situation. Ted Kennedy is going to take the ayatollah for a ride in his car."
These jokes and a dozen others would have been reported to you as current humor had it not been for misgivings about good taste. It has always been this column's policy to avoid joking about things that involve death or religion. Some people are deeply sensitive about these topics, and I would rather pass up a joke than cause anguish in these areas.
It can be argued that one who presents himself to the public for its approval must be prepared to endure disapproval as well, even when it is expressed in harsh terms. And this is a thesis to which I subscribe. If I don't want to be criticized for what is published under my name, I must stop writing for publication. I can get a job driving a truck or selling wallpaper. As Mr. Truman said, "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen."
Let it be noted that if Kennedy had retired to private life after the accident, he might have been entitled to a quick end to criticism for what happened at Chappaquiddick. Once the law had run its course, even a transgressor's right to privacy is restored.
But each time Kennedy presented himself anew for public approval, most recently for election to the highest office in the land, we waived his right to be let alone.
He had to take whatever slings and arrows came his way. He knew that. He is resigned to it. And if that were all that is involved here, I would not have found it necessary to wrestle with my conscience about Chappaquiddick jokes.
What settled the issue for me was not concern for Kennedy's feelings but respect for the memory of a young woman who died in an unfortunate accident. I think it is in bad taste to make jokes about any person's death.
Even death as a generalized concept is a poor subject for humor, but politics is fair game, especially if one can find something in political machinations to laugh about.
The District Line pokes fun at both Republicans and Democrats, and sometimes a comment here is sharp enough to makes its target howl. That's all part of the game. But I think this column's Chappaquiddick policy in this campaign should now be set forth clearly:
If there is something new to be said about the events that took place at Chappaquidick, it is a reporter's right and responsibility to bring out the truth. But it is in bad taste to joke about the matter.
If you say I'm wrong, my comment will be the same as it was when a recent Washington Post poll that revealed the Democrats are deeply divided among themselves: "What else is new?" POSTSCRIPT
This being policy day, permit me to offer a few reminders.
This column does not attempt to restore lost or found items to their rightful owners. Hundreds of dogs, cats, eyeglasses, watches, rings, briefcases, manuscripts and other items are lost and found in a large city every day. And of course every lost puppy was the pet of a child who is grieved by its absence. Nevertheless, no column can cope with so many losses. g
Anniversaries are in the same category. If there are a million married couples in this area, about 2,739 wedding anniversaries are observed every day. If there are 3 million individuals here, 8,219 of them will celebrate birthdays on any given day.
There are more than 200 worthy charities in the Washington area. The District Line has traditionally limited its fund appeals to two causes: Children's Hospital and Heroes Inc. This year's campaign for Children's Hospital will begin on Nov. 30 because Dec. 1 falls on a saturday. We will handle the 1979 campaign in a new way, so please hold your checks for a few days until I have a chance to tell you what we're going to do. Thank you.