Chappaquiddick Ted and Conscienceless Voters

We all assume voters care about politicians' morals - but do they?

#MeToo has stirred up a great many discussions of what people can and cannot do during episodes of inter-gender interaction.  Pundits, politicians, and executives have lost their jobs, but but it's not clear just how much sexual behavior affects actual voters.

For generations, political consultants have urged candidates to engage in "negative campaigning" on the theory that slinging enough mud at one's opponent would get some of it to stick, particularly if the candidate could arrange for the mud to be slung by someone else.  Hillary's paying Mr. Steele to dig up unverified dirt about Mr. Trump and arranging for it to be publicized before the election is but one example.

The assumption today is that tolerance for sexual transgressions has decreased enough that voters would reject a sexually-aggressive candidate, but a glance at recent history shows that it's not at all clear that this is so.  In fact, there's historical reason to doubt that voters have ever worried much about a candidate's moral qualifications, either now or in the past.

Chappaquiddick Ted

The Chappaquiddick Incident, where a campaign worker named Mary Jo Kopechne died of suffocation when Sen. Ted Kennedy drove his car off Dyke Bridge in Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, hasn't been explored adequately until recently.  Book publishers and Hollywood have pretty much ignored the subject for 48 years, largely because Democrats were above criticism, particularly Democrats named Kennedy.

The recently released movie Chappaquiddick still leans toward favoring the Senator, but even so, one reviewer said,

Chappaquiddick the movie fills in an important gap, and if it had been released in 1970, it would have ended Kennedy's political career. (It was only a few weeks ago that a sitting senator resigned over far less disturbing behavior than Kennedy's.)

This sounds hopeful - surely nobody wants to be represented by a person of such low moral fiber as to leave an innocent girl dying slowly of suffocation while he goes back to bed?  But we wonder whether the Massachusetts voters would really have denied Sen. Kennedy his seat if they had known more about his behavior at the time.

Back in 1969, William F. Buckley discussed the judicial inquiry into Ms. Kopechne's death:

There are advantages to being a public figure, as anyone can see who recorded the obsequiousness with which the senator was treated on that Saturday. ...

I think that Chappaquiddick will not go away. And I venture the following analysis.

What Chappaquiddick did was to shatter the dynastic claims of Edward Kennedy. His preeminence as Democratic choice for the presidency was primarily a biological phenomenon. He would not have been elected to the Senate at the time that he was save that his brother was president of the United States. His name would never have been mentioned for the presidency, save that his second brother was killed[emphasis added]

The National Review went on to say years later:

Mr. Buckley was correct - the cover-up kept him in the Senate, but Chappaquiddick ended Sen. Kennedy's chances to occupy the White House. It was clear at the time that although Massachusetts voters would continue to vote for him by large margins, the rest of the country would probably not accept him even though the details presented in the movie were not yet known.

So it proved.  Sen. Kennedy ran against President Carter for the Democratic nomination.  Mr. Carter defeated "Chappaquiddick Ted" soundly and went on to lose the election to Ronald Reagan.

The question is - would Massachusetts voters have continued to elect him so overwhelmingly if the partial truth presented by the movie had been known in 1970 or 1971?  A bit of political history suggests that it would have made little if any difference.  His many well-known incidents of sexual assault and marital infidelity certainly had no effect.

Ignoring sexual adventurism on the part of political candidates goes back a long way, at least to when Grover Cleveland and James Blaine fought the presidential election of 1884.  Mr. Trump's technique of assigning derogatory labels to his opponents is merely the modern reflection of a longstanding tradition: Mr. Cleveland's team chanted "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine," accusing Mr. Blaine of unethical connections to the railroad industry.

Attempting to one-up their opponent, Mr. Blaine's supporters countered with what was, in the Victorian era, an even harsher chant: "Ma, Ma, Where's my Pa?" in reference to a "love child" which Mr. Cleveland had fathered then abandoned.

When Mr. Cleveland won the election, his supporters adopted the criticism and declared, "Ma, Ma, Where's my Pa?  Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha Ha!"  If ever there was a time in American history where a sex scandal could have been expected to destroy a career, it was the high Victorian era - yet it didn't.

Instead, corruption seems to have pretty well canceled out sexuality leaving the election to be decided on whatever remaining merits occurred to the voters, much as Hillary's and Mr. Trump's mutual association with unseemly behavior made such charges a wash.

Bad Democrats and Awful Democrats

So what, then, do voters care about?  It's clear that stealing taxpayer money and running cities poorly don't matter much to voters because our major cities have largely been misruled by Democrats for decades.  Many of them are increasingly Third World in nature: they have glittering avenues of vast wealth surrounded by huge districts occupied by the very poor and hopeless.  Some of them lack areas of vast wealth and are simply poor save for a handful of upper-middle-class politicos who run the place.

City Democrat
1 Detroit, MI 1961
2 Buffalo, NY 1954
3 Cincinnati, OH 1984
4 Cleveland, OH 1989
5 Miami, FL forever
6 St. Louis, MO 1949
7 El Paso, TX forever
8 Milwaukee, WI 1908
9 Philadelphia, PA 1952
10 Newark, NJ 1907

Five of our poorest cities have been led by Democrats for more than 45 years.  Two of the cities on the list, Miami, FL and El Paso, TX have never had Republican mayors.  Not ever.

Like poverty, corruption has flourished in Democrat-misruled places for nearly as long with seemingly little impact on voting.  One of the most famous corrupt politicians was "Boss Tweed" of Tammany Hall.  He created a highly corrupt but highly successful New York City Democratic political machine which largely controlled Democratic party nominations from 1854 until 1932.

Despite his well-known corruption, Mr. Tweed was never voted out of office even though he was estimated to have stolen between $25 million and $45 million.  Instead of losing an election, he was attacked by Democratic political rivals who wanted to get in on the profits which came from having political power.

His opponents leaked damaging information to newspapers such as the Times which undermined investors' confidence in the city's bonds.  Every wealthy person knew that if the city's investments were suspect, every bank in the city would be destroyed - and in those days, there was no FDIC to bail out depositors with government money.  With their personal fortunes put at risk, the ruling elites turned against Mr. Tweed and he went to jail in 1877.

The interesting point is that voters didn't mind Mr. Tweed's wealth because he used city funds and resources to take care of them.  Criminal charges were brought against him only because his financial mismanagement threatened the collapse of the city banks; since that would have reduced or eliminated the wealth of the rest of the establishment, they got rid of him without troubling to ask the voters their opinion.  The tradition of paying voters to look the other way seems to go back a long time as does the reality that the swamp doesn't appreciate efforts to drain it.

In modern times, the tradition of ripping off taxpayers continues.  We've reported some of the corruption in the New York City government departments, and the New York Times pointed out that subway construction costs seven times the average elsewhere in the world.

Back in 2010, an examination of a subway construction site showed that 1,000 workers were being paid an average of $1,000 per day, but only 700 of them were doing any actual work.  That makes the featherbedding on non-government construction sites seem like penny-ante stuff.  More recently, the New York Post described a bribery scheme run by Mayor De Blasio.  Such shenanigans are routinely reported, but nobody besides the people who write the stories seems to care.

We're fascinated by the fact that voters don't seem to mind their politicians being corrupt or being accused of crimes up to and including sexual assault.  Boss Tweed kept getting elected and re-elected despite years of charges against him, Bill Clinton is one of the most revered politicians in spite of decades of amatory adventures, and New York voters keep sending the same bunch of thieves back to Albany and Washington.

When Sen. Stephens (R-Alaska) was convicted of taking money from an Alaskan oil company just before the 2008 election, he very nearly won re-election anyway.  It took a strong voter turnout effort backed by much money from out of state to defeat him.  It later turned out that the criminal charges against him were totally bogus, the product of gross prosecutorial misconduct, but the fact that the charges were bogus didn't prevent the Democrat victor from providing the crucial 60th vote for Obamacare.

Similarly, Judge Roy Moore of Alabama was abandoned by the Republicans, hounded ceaselessly by mainstream media outlets which promoted inherently unproveable charges, and outspent by his Democratic opponent.  He, too, came very close to winning his election.

"Crooked Hillary" nearly won the presidency in spite of highly credible charges of selling her services as Secretary of State to foreign powers and being unarguably under FBI investigation at the time.  Do our voters in fact not mind corruption?

It would seem that voters don't particularly mind sexual assault any more than they mind theft.  When Sen. Franken was accused of sexual assault, the voters never got a chance to state their opinions; he was forced to resign by some sort of pressure from his Senate colleagues.  We really wish we knew why he gave up such a prestigious job - did they make him an offer he couldn't refuse?

We also can't help but observe the fact that his state had a Democrat governor who would be sure to appoint another Democrat to take his place.  Would the outcome have been different if his successor would have been a Republican?  Either way, the voters had nothing to do with it.

Does character matter in American politics?  Evidently not, but the real question is, has it ever mattered?  Not so's we can find it.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments

A correction about "Boss" Tweed: he actually was not mayor of NYC; he was the Grand Sachem ("boss") of Tammany Hall, the famous (infamous?) local Democratic party organization. He had a group of 2 or 3 loyal subordinates, one of whom was named (I think) Sweeney, who was usually mayor. These men frequently appear with him in the fabulous Thomas Nast cartoons, especially the Tweed-as-emperor cartoon showing the Tammany Tiger devouring the city as fair-Christian-maiden, and the "Let us prey" cartoon, showing Tweed and his closest buddies as vultures. By the way, Tweed's own most famous quote was, "As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?". That shows up in several cartoons, including "Let us prey". It was also echoed by Stalin when he said, "I don't care how people vote, as long as I count the ballots". It also illustrates a familiar problem in Virginia, where the Democrats repeatedly win close elections by "finding" a missing ballot box in Fairfax or Arlington counties.

April 19, 2018 8:37 PM
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