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Christine M. Flowers: Twilight of the Kennedys: The indelible stain

THE hagiography of Edward M. Kennedy began early Wednesday morning after the news that the "Lion of the Senate," the "greatest senator ever" and "the brother who mattered most," had taken his last breath in Hyannisport, Mass.

THE hagiography of Edward M. Kennedy began early Wednesday morning after the news that the "Lion of the Senate," the "greatest senator ever" and "the brother who mattered most," had taken his last breath in Hyannisport, Mass.

There will be days of public mourning, hours of TV devoted to his accomplishments, testimonials to his service, reminiscences about his humor and kindness and praise for the dignity with which he exited the stage he'd dominated for almost 50 years.

If you forget the private citizen, the one plagued by alcohol and other demons, you're left with a towering public figure who dramatically changed the legislative landscape to reflect his version of social justice. Despite a seriously flawed character, he epitomized the words of his older brother, asking not what his country could do for him but actually doing what he could for his country.

Immigration reform, Medicare, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act, on and on and on, Kennedy's brand is seared into the laws of this nation. And while his death couldn't approach the tragic dimensions of Jack's or Bobby's, there will probably be more tears for Teddy, if only because he's the last.

I got caught up in the moment. Looking at the pictures flash across the TV screen, my eyes watered at the sight of a boyish Kennedy playing football with his brothers, a grown and grieving man standing beside his sisters-in-law, a silver-haired senior roaring from the Senate floor and, finally, a battle-scarred warrior campaigning for Barack Obama.

It was, indeed, a lovely dream. But then I woke up. And while it's only fair to praise the lion's glory, it's also necessary to remember some of his carnage.

When Kennedy reaches heaven, where I think it's safe to assume there's a spot reserved for him despite his sins, he'll see his brothers and sisters, including the recently deceased Eunice. He'll see his father (perhaps), and his mother, nephews and colleagues, and you can just imagine them all laughing and competing and playing touch football in the clouds.

But there will also be someone else, someone who's been there longer than most, looking on from a corner. And you hope Teddy is ready to meet her gaze.

Mary Jo Kopechne is a sad footnote to an otherwise exceptional and in many ways exemplary life. Many have forgotten the details, if not the name of the young woman left to drown in the dark waters of Chappaquiddick. Every honest obituary has to include the tragic tale of the lion's saddest victim.

In one way, it's our story more than many others' since Kopechne, only 29 at the time of her death, was a Pennsylvania native. She'd worked on Bobby Kennedy's ill-fated presidential campaign in 1968, and on the night of July 18, 1969, was at a party on Chappaquiddick Island. She and Teddy left the party together, the car plunged off Dike Bridge, and the young woman drowned.

Had Kennedy also drowned that night, he'd have been the fourth brother to die under tragic circumstances. But the same will that helped him in political battles and made him a formidable adversary for the cancer that finally took his life rescued him from a premature grave.

He escaped, and didn't report the accident until the next morning.

IT WAS never clear whether Kennedy was drinking, what he remembered or if there was a coverup. What is known is that Kopechne, whose death was at least partly overshadowed by the moon landing two days later, never seemed to be treated as fully human. To the Kennedys, she was a tragic inconvenience. To the rest of us, she was one of the more salacious episodes in the Kennedy soap spin-off, "Life with Teddy."

What's most off-putting is that he never seemed sorry for his role in Kopechne's death. He avoided the topic, putting it away in that dark corner with the alcoholism, skirt-chasing and all the other peccadilloes that people excused because of his pedigree, family tragedies and his value to the liberal cause. He was Bill Clinton, just born with a silver spoon.

Kennedy was as human as they come, so let's dispense with the halo. He did some very good things for a lot of people. But all those battles on the side of the angels cannot, on balance, be a full penance for destroying that innocent human life.

Listen to Christine Flowers on WPHT/1210 AM Sunday, 2:30-5 p.m. E-mail