Thursday, January 16, 2003

Irony, incomprehension, and that Mary Jo Kopechne reference. One of the many fine touches in Charlie Pierce's recent Boston Globe Magazine profile of Ted Kennedy was this swift turn of the knife:

That's how you survive what he's survived. That's how you move forward, one step after another, even though your name is Edward Moore Kennedy. You work, always, as though your name were Edward Moore. If she had lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 62 years old. Through his tireless work as a legislator, Edward Kennedy would have brought comfort to her in her old age.

Brutally vicious, yes; unfair, no. I certainly didn't think there was any mistaking Pierce's intent. And it was confirmed for me last Thursday, when James Taranto, in his "Best of the Web" column on, wrote, "Charles Pierce must really hate Ted Kennedy," and described the excerpt above as a "paragraph of pure poison." Indeed, a letter published in the Globe Magazine last Sunday described Pierce's piece as "truth, even though it is a savage attack that strikes too close for comfort."

But it appears that not everyone got it. Last Saturday, former Globe columnist John Ellis ran just the last two sentences of the poison paragraph on his weblog under the heading "Only At The Globe" -- the implication being, I guess, that Ellis thought Pierce was an addle-brained bleeding-heart who believed Kennedy's lifetime of liberal legislating had wiped the slate clean with regard to his role in Kopechne's death.

On Monday, Ellis acknowledged that some of his readers had taken him to task for failing to get it, and he ran a lengthy e-mail from a friend of Pierce's. The next day, Jay Fitzgerald weighed in with a long post on the affair, and came down on Pierce's side -- that is, that the Kopechne reference was intended as harsh ironic criticism, not as expiation. For good measure, Fitzgerald included an e-mail from Ellis himself, who said he regarded Pierce's bit as "border-line obscene" and "a spurious line of reasoning." Hmm. Well, okay, but that's certainly not what I took away from the line "Only At The Globe."

Yet Ellis's misreading -- if that's what it was -- was minor compared to that of Mark Steyn, who wrote a column about Pierce's piece on Monday in Canada's National Post, which was passed on to me by a reader. Steyn quotes the same Kopechne excerpt and then adds:

... Mr. Pierce's point is a simple one: Sure, 34 years ago, Teddy fished himself out of the briny, staggered away and somehow neglected to inform the authorities until the following morning that he'd left some gal down there. But, if he was too tired to do anything for her back then, he's been "tireless" on her behalf ever since....

But among the orthodox left the Clymer/Pierce view is the standard line: You can't make an omelette without breaking chicks. This is subtly different from arguing that a man's personal failings are outweighed by his public successes. Rather, they're saying that a man's personal flaws are trumped by his ideological purity, regardless of whether or not it works. I doubt whether a 62-year-old Mary Jo would regard Senator Kennedy as "bringing comfort" to her old age.

(The Clymer reference is to New York Times reporter Adam Clymer's biography of Kennedy from several years back, once labeled by our only president as "a major-league asshole.")

Steyn not only doesn't get it, he twists Pierce's meaning beyond all possible recognition, making explicit what Ellis had seemed to suggest implicitly. Taken within context, Pierce is clearly, sneeringly saying that Kennedy's many small accomplishments over the years can never undo his reprehensible behavior at Chappaquiddick. Steyn, by contrast, asserts that Pierce gives Kennedy a free pass. I wonder whether he even read Pierce's entire article. Steyn is so sloppy that in his second sentence he describes Pierce's piece as "a 10,000-word profile." It is, in fact, about 8700 words. Not a big deal, but why say it if you can't be bothered to get it right?

I sent Pierce an e-mail yesterday asking him to comment. Here's his reply:

As to Ellis, whom I assume is the Bush cousin whose WSJ piece you mentioned on Wednesday, well, we knew from Fox News that he couldn't count honestly. Now we know he can't read honestly, either. [Media Log aside: Whoa!] As for young Mr. Steyn -- what can I say? If he was Navajo, I'd blame it on the peyote. My respect for Mr. Taranto grows by the hour.

Pierce adds that he may write about this tomorrow when he fills in for Eric Alterman on his Altercation blog. Should be interesting.

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