ABC Buries Harsh Kennedy Obit, One That Labels Him a ‘Failure,’ in the Middle of the Night

In the early hours of Wednesday, reporter John Donvan narrated a tough, comprehensive look at the life of Ted Kennedy, one that went so far as to assert that the Senator was sometimes "a let down, an embarrassment to his family, to his party, to himself." However, this eight and a half minute segment, which looked into Chappaquiddick, Kennedy’s cheating at Harvard and other scandals, aired at 2:30 (11:30 on the west coast) in the morning, during a special, late night edition of Nightline.

A much shorter, sanitized version of the piece was replayed on the August 26 edition of World News With Charles Gibson. It left out the harsh words about being a "failure," the accounts of public intoxication and affairs, all of which were featured in the Nightline segment.

In the first version, Donvan pulled no punches. He began by claiming that Kennedy "got a full term on his Earth, those 77 years, time enough to honor the family name but also time enough to disappoint." Speaking of the early days, Donvan explained, "He got into Harvard, played football there, too, and well, but then he disappointed. Caught cheating for a Spanish exam, he was booted for two years."

Unlike many journalistic reflections on the Senator’s life, Donvan gave more than just brief attention to Chappaquiddick. He offered this assessment of the car crash that took the life of Mary Jo Kopechne:

JOHN DONVAN: To witness how far he had fallen, it was the Chappaquiddick incident that, like the legends of his brothers, would also shadow his career. Driving with a young woman who was not his wife, he went off a bridge and she drowned, though he escaped and waited nine hours to report what had happened. Massachusetts returned him to the Senate the following year, but now that he was the Kennedy presumed next to try for the White House, the question was could he ever live down Chappaquiddick?

In the version that aired on World News, Donvan only briefly described, "If only he hadn't also brought so much trouble to himself. The defining disaster, Chappaquiddick, that car he drove off the bridge. His female passenger drowned."

In the Nightline segment, Donvan informed viewers of other Kennedy problems: "...Many of his best years in the Senate were a mess in his private life. Divorced, he was often seen drunk and womanizing in his 50s."

That statement didn’t make it into the World News piece. Neither did this one: "A lion so often, especially later in life, but at other times, and earlier on, a let down, an embarrassment to his family, to his party, to himself." The World News segment did find time to note that Kennedy "was nearly 60 in 1991 when a rape charge brought against his nephew on a night they'd all been out drinking together left a lingering image though the nephew was acquitted."

The Nightline segment was replayed in full at 4am on Wednesday during the overnight World News Now program. After airing the piece, the hosts of the late night program clearly displayed their distaste over such negative events being discussed. Co-anchor Vinita Nair huffed, "Of course, some of those things people don't want to remember. And I don't think that really tarnishes his legacy in the sense that those are the things that a lot, of people won't remember."

Fellow host Jeremy Hubbard quickly agreed: "And there are those who say that those are the things that shaped who he became in his later years on Capitol Hill."

A transcript of the Nightline segment, which aired at 2:30am EDT on August 26, follows:

TERRY MORAN: Ted Kennedy is gone. For millions of Americans, that’s hard to imagine. So long, had the youngest of the nine children of the Kennedy clan blazed forth on the center stage of American politics. Edward Moore Kennedy died of brain cancer a little before midnight, Tuesday, at the age of 77, at his home at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. He was dubbed the Lion of the Senate, serving in that body for an amazing 46 years, the third longest tenure ever. And now, John Donvan looks back at the liberal who roared.

JOHN DONVAN: He was 77 years old when he died today. The patriarchal holder of that iconic family name, the name his brothers made legend and it was his burden to live up to. But Joe, John and Robert died young while Ted, the youngest, he got a full term on his Earth, those 77 years, time enough to honor the family name but also time enough to disappoint.

TED KENNEDY [At DNC convention in 2008]: Nothing is going to keep me away from this special gathering tonight.

DONVAN: It was the honor side of the equation in Denver, 2008, where they would soon nominate Barack Obama. But when Kennedy showed up, everyone there knew it was his last convention.

TED KENNEDY: The hope rises again! And the dream lives on.

DONVAN: But he still had it, could still hit the high notes. And this Ted Kennedy they lionized. Right here and now he was equaled to the legend. He embodied it. He roared it. But contrast that to the almost confessional speech he delivered at Harvard more than 17 years ago when he was nearly 60.

TED KENNEDY: I recognize my own shortcomings. The faults and conduct of my private life. I realize that I alone am responsible for them. And I am the one that must confront them.

DONVAN: Those are the bookends of Ted Kennedy’s reputation. A lion so often, especially later in life, but at other times, and earlier on, a let down, an embarrassment to his family, to his party, to himself. So often incurring, as he said in that Harvard speech-

TED KENNEDY: -the disappointment of friends and many others who rely on me to fight the good fight.

DONVAN: The good fight. Good or not, fight was part of the family ethic. And he was born Edward Moore Kennedy, February 22, 1932, into a life of privilege, combined with ambition and some of it Ted got right. He got into Harvard, played football there, too, and well, but then he disappointed. Caught cheating for a Spanish exam, he was booted for two years. By the late 1950s, however, having served in the Army and gone to law school, he emerged having developed, somewhere along the way, a splendid political gift for getting along with people, joining his brother's campaign for presidency. This young, rich boy from Massachusetts somehow charmed Democrats from Wisconsin to Wyoming and helped his brother win the nomination.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: And I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.

DONVAN: It was his family's golden moment. And Ted’s piece of it was winning the Senate seat that had once been his brothers. He would be senator from Massachusetts uninterrupted for the next 47 years. But not without, again, wavering between strength and weakness. Strength when John was murdered in 1963 and then when his brother Bobby was assassinated almost five years later, it was that occasion Bobby's funeral, where Ted demonstrated a second extraordinary political gift, eloquence and authenticity when the moment needed it.

TED KENNEDY: Those of us who loved him, and who will take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us, and what he wished for others, will someday come to pass for all the world.

DONVAN: It was 1968 and the burden had become his. And so it is astounding to witness this speech just over one year later.

TED KENNEDY: There is no truth, no truth whatever, to the widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct that have been leveled at my behavior, and hers, regarding that evening.

DONVAN: To witness how far he had fallen, it was the Chappaquiddick incident that, like the legends of his brothers, would also shadow his career. Driving with a young woman who was not his wife, he went off a bridge and she drowned, though he escaped and waited nine hours to report what had happened. Massachusetts returned him to the Senate the following year, but now that he was the Kennedy presumed next to try for the White House, the question was could he ever live down Chappaquiddick? In fact, he let two presidential elections pass before tossing his hat into the ring.

TED KENNEDY: Today, I formally announce that I'm a candidate for President of the United States.

DONVAN: But then, a strange thing happened. His eloquence vanished when Roger Mudd of CBS asked him the most obvious question there was.

ROGER MUDD: Why do you want to be President?

TED KENNEDY: Well, I’m, uh-

DONVAN: Maybe, some concluded, it never was Ted Kennedy’s ambition, but just loyalty to the legend. And was that enough? It was a harbinger. The campaign went poorly. He lost the nomination and never ran for president again. But listen to what he said as he walked away from that last White House race.

TED KENNEDY: For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.

DONVAN: It was a kind of transformation, no longer chasing a Kennedy-in-the-White-House dream, he set out to make himself mark in the Senate. And this would turn out extraordinarily well thanks again to his gift for getting along. He became a master persuader, even remaining on good terms with ideological foes like Ronald Reagan. He was instrumental in creating Martin Luther King day. He worked for campaign finance reform. He successfully pushed the Family and Medical Leave Act and authored No child Left Behind. Above all, he fought for health care reform with less spectacular results. But that he kept on fighting. That’s what would sustain his standing. And he would need that. Because, many of his best years in the Senate were a mess in his private life. Divorced, he was often seen drunk and womanizing in his 50s.

WILLIAM KENNEDY SMITH At this point, I’m not going to talk about the events of that night.

DONVAN: And one more scandal erupted when, after a night of partying with his Uncle Ted in Florida, Ted’s nephew, William Kennedy Smith, was accused of rape. He was later acquitted. But, Newsweek said of Ted that he was the living symbol of the family flaws. Thus it was that, over exposed and up for reelection with plunging poll numbers, Kennedy made that confessional Harvard speech, admitting that he had disappointed so many but also saying this:

TED KENNEDY: I believe that each of us as individuals must not only struggle to make a better world but to make ourselves better, too.

DONVAN: That was in 1991. We know, now, that in the nearly two decades he had left, Ted Kennedy did in fact work to better himself. He married again, the scandals stopped. The legislative achievements continued. And never to wear the mantle Commander in Chief, he earned a different one, the lion of the Senate. Perhaps not the stuff that legends are made of. But Ted Kennedy he was behind something else to measure and remember, the record of a life, lived in full with all its ups and downs. I’m John Donvan in Washington for Nightline in Washington.

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org