If you’re a conservative and you pay attention to what is said about conservatives in the media — two crimes of which I am guilty — you come to recognize an evergreen tic: the desire to raise previously loathed conservative pols to newfound heights after they have died in order to tear down whichever contemporary conservative pol has earned the ire of the press.
As Jonah Goldberg put it a few years back in a blog post highlighting the practice, “The only good conservative is a dead conservative.” He noted the ways in which Barry Goldwater (who was literally attacked in print as too crazy to be president by a group of psychiatrists, a shocking dereliction of ethics) now serves as the friendly ghost of conservatism past. William F. Buckley is the patron saint of reasoned discourse, a well-read mandarin willing to entertain liberals and conservatives alike. And Ronald Reagan — the cowboy warmonger who was simultaneously a dunce and Machiavellian puller of strings orchestrating secret international arms deals — appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 2007 with a Photoshopped tear rolling down his cheek, supposedly saddened by the state of conservatism in Dubya’s final years in office.
This phenomenon is not strictly limited to dead Republicans. George W. Bush has been creeping up the presidential rankings ever since leaving office; he’s 33rd out of 43 now, compared with 36th out of 42 upon leaving office. (It is hard to say if this uptick has to do with his antipathy toward President Trump or his status as the preeminent artist of our times.) There’s always some danger of lionizing a conservative before he’s cold and in the ground; Mitt Romney went from soulless dog abuser who killed people with cancer and creepily kept women in binders to a reasonable anti-Trump voice back to a callow pol who should be shunned when he announced his run for Utah’s forthcoming Senate vacancy.
“Chappaquiddick,” an impressive new movie about Ted Kennedy driving a car off a bridge and killing a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969, helps us understand a corollary to this law: If the only good Republican is a dead Republican, then the only bad Democrat is a dead Democrat. And the dead Democrat should always be used to show just how awful the current Republican is.
This is the basic thrust of Jill Filipovic’s essay on the film and Ted Kennedy for NBC, helpfully titled “Since Chappaquiddick, Democrats’ views of women have evolved. Republicans’ still need to.” Leaving aside the time frame on that evolution — it certainly did not happen immediately after Chappaquiddick, in response to Chappaquiddick, or in the 40 years Kennedy served in the Senate, or until really quite recently, it seems. Indeed, 20 years after Chappaquiddick, a book about the whole sordid affair was stifled by mainstream publishers, eventually becoming a bestseller for the conservative house Regnery Gateway. But the point is simple: A dead Democrat can show the ways in which living Republicans still fail us.
“The left does continue to struggle with how to treat misdeeds by powerful men with whom it is politically aligned, and male misbehavior transcends political ideology. But there is no question that Democrats are cleaning house,” she writes. “You can’t say the same about the American right.”
This is the undercurrent of many reviews of “Chappaquiddick,” a movie about the killing of a young woman by a lionized Democratic pol that is considered timely because a Republican who has cheated on multiple wives now happens to occupy the Oval Office. Inkoo Kang uses the film as a clarifying moment to indict the entire right-wing media-industrial complex. “It’s tempting to see the plague of fake news and the ham-fisted attempts at Orwellian indoctrination — on Fox News, Sinclair stations and YouTube conspiracy-theory videos — as a malaise that afflicts them, seldom us,” she writes. “‘Chappaquiddick’ … serves as a timely reminder that voters on either side of the aisle are susceptible to influence, especially when it’s wrapped up in male entitlement and oligarchical polish.”
Conservatives who spent decades railing against Kennedy, calling him a murderer and a scoundrel and screaming about the left’s silence, are right to be annoyed by the both-sidesing of this event.
Wondering why “Chappaquiddick” wasn’t being groomed for an awards-season run late last year, Stephen Silver wrote that, “for obvious reasons, this tale of a powerful man in America committing an indefensible act and getting away with it is pretty timely these days, what with multiple-times-accused sexual predator Donald Trump in the White House, the Harvey Weinstein debacle still in the news, and the numerous other scandals of prominent badly-behaved men.”
Owen Gleiberman at least understands the damage Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton and their lackeys have done to our nation’s politics: “So how does [Donald Trump’s behavior] differ, in kind, from the sins — and the entitlement — of Edward M. Kennedy? Or of Bill Clinton, whose brilliant charisma and sexual double dealing has always been mythologically linked to the Kennedys? Does it differ at all?” Frankly, it differs insofar as Kennedy’s behavior was actually far worse than Trump’s; Trump has never killed a woman, after all.
I’m by no means a defender of Trump and have no interest in relitigating the past 18 months. But if you want to understand why a majority of evangelical Christians are willing to look the other way when it comes to Trump’s various transgressions, all you have to do is recall feminist luminaries defending Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and that the Democratic Party has only recently turned against Kennedy and only then because he’s a useful cudgel against the current GOP president.
“Chappaquiddick” is a fine movie about a terrible man who did an awful thing. But viewing his awfulness as nothing more than a tool to attack those you hate in our current moment misses the point of the movie.