Kennedy's philandering is a latent issue right now, something that lies beneath the surface of people's thinking. But I believe that when the hard thinking starts, it will come to the surface, because the inhibitions against considering it belong to codes that are on the wane, while the reasons for considering it are compelling. Things have changed since Jack Kennedy's day. People have thought a lot about attitudes toward women and their implications, and people have thought about character and power. How critical the issue will become is another matter altogether. If it does become a big issue, it certainly won't be because of its feminist significance alone. The feminist vote is not very large, and very few feminists vote strictly according to feminist concerns, particularly subtle concerns like this one.
If Ted Kennedy's philandering becomes a political issue, my guess is that it will be because of the way it connects to larger doubts. Right now, along with impulsive attraction, latent doubt seems to be a major characteristic of the public attitude toward Kennedy – latent doubt surrounded by a thick hazy glare of hope. How strange is it that despite all that has been written about this man, despite all of his exposure to the public eye, he is still so unclear to so many of us. Could this be because he actually is a rather unclear, unformed person? This is the aspect of the philandering that concerns me most – the immaturity of it.
For years we have been close to certain that one day Edward Kennedy would run for president. But as long as this was just a possibility, there has been a kind of abeyance of judgment. We have maintained a blurriness of our own, within which we have kept alive the possibility that the great aborted promise of John and Robert Kennedy will some day be realized fully. It is as though, despite all our scrutiny of Edward Kennedy on one level, on another we've averted our eyes, saving our hope, putting off the moment of judgment, saying to ourselves: when he runs for president, then we'll see, then we'll take a really close look. Well, now he is actually running for president, and though this is hardly a surprise, the actuality has a very different feeling from the prospect. As the abstract haze of hope begins to thin in the atmosphere of a genuine candidacy we find ourselves squinting at the particular human being inside that haze. Who is he?
(The author is a staff writer for the New Yorker and a contributing editor to the Washington Monthly. This piece is copyright 1979 Suzannah Lessard, from the Washington Monthly, where it appeared in this month's issue.)