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Sen. Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009 -- and the unanswerable question

I was driving home from work last night and caught the tail end of an interesting discussion on the Dom Giordano Show on WPHT. They were talking about Michael Vick...and Sen. Ted Kennedy. On one level, that seems absurd -- Vick is a scandal-scarred football player; Kennedy, the so-called "lion" of the United States Senate. But Kennedy was dogged for 40 long years by the same essential issue that the Eagles' new backup QB faces today: Can we ever redeem ourselves from one terrible and irreversible act?

About 90 minutes later, the world learned that Kennedy had finally succumbed to brain cancer at age 77.

But the questions raised by his too-unbelievable-for-Hollywood life in the public arena still linger behind, so difficult to answer.

There's no argument -- at least in my liberal-leaning mind -- that Kennedy accomplished great things during nearly 47 years in the U.S. Senate. For every time that the media invoked the name of Mary Jo Kopechne, the young woman whose life was tragically cut short during the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident in which the then-young senator's actions were inexcusable from start to finish, there is undoubtedly an American somewhere who is leading a better life because of legislation that Ted Kennedy spearheaded and sometimes passed against long odds.

This morning the Inquirer editorial board has "the list" -- you'll be hearing this a lot between now and Kennedy's burial:

In 47 years in the Senate, Kennedy passed more than 300 laws. Among them are the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which made public places more accessible to the disabled, and the State Children's Health Insurance Program of 1997, which funded the largest expansion of health insurance coverage for children since the 1960s. The COBRA Act of 1985, signed into law by President Reagan, gave workers the ability to continue health insurance after leaving employment. And Title IX opened up college sports to young women.

He was a lifelong ally of organized labor and a relentless advocate for increasing the minimum wage. Kennedy also was a champion of education; in 2002 he worked with President George W. Bush to enact the No Child Left Behind law. Earlier this year, he teamed with President Obama to enact a law to encourage more national service. When he died, he was still pushing for his longtime goal of universal health care.

It was another lion of the Senate who overlapped with Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, who said famously that "[a] society will be judged on how it treats those in the dawn of life, those in the twilight of life, and those in the shadow of life." But it was Ted Kennedy who did more than anyone to push American society in that right direction. It is for this achievement that people are praising him this morning...and rightfully so.

But for all the lives he helped indirectly, let's be honest: he arguably played a critical role in ending one directly in 1969. We'll never know if Kopechne could have been saved if Kennedy and his aides had called police in the minutes after he drove with his young passenger off that bridge on Martha's Vineyard. But we do know that the way that the Massachusetts senator acted was unforgivable.

Frankly, I think that an incident like Chappaquiddick would have ended the career of Kennedy -- or any politician -- had it happened in 2009 instead of 1969. (Example: Do you honestly think Eliot Spitzer's career-ending move last year was worse than what Kennedy did?) And certainly Kennedy paid something of a price: Chappaquiddick was the biggest reason, although not the only one, that Teddy never followed his brother Jack into the Oval Office.

But Kennedy ultimately faced a problem that millions of people -- and not just Michael Vick -- face over the course of a lifetime. What do we do with the rest of our lives after we've done the unpardonable. For as long as two decades, frankly, Kennedy veered between the two polar extremes of self-destruction (if you need an example, Google "Kennedy" and "Eskimo power") and redemption. Since Kennedy's second marriage in the early 1990s, his emphasis seemed totally on the redemptive side, and so we are all better off for it.

But was it enough?

I honestly can't answer that -- honestly, it would take a much Higher Authority than me to decide. I think we should be glad, in the end, that Kennedy ultimately chose the path that he took in the 40 years since that awful night, but I can't feel comfortable saying that he fully redeemed himself, either. And so when I think about Ted Kennedy, both on this day of his passing and in the years to come, it won't be the accomplishments that come to mind first.

It will be the questions.