In an effort to restore his damaged political standing, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) accepted responsibility Friday for "faults and frailties" in his private life and pledged to reform his lifestyle so that it will not interfere with his work.
Kennedy, in a painful mea culpa speech at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, indirectly apologized to friends and supporters for his unusually subdued demeanor at the recent confirmation hearings for new Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. But he vowed to "fight the good fight" for them in the years ahead.
And without going into details about allegations of heavy drinking and womanizing that have plagued him for years, and the recent rape charges filed in Florida against his nephew, Kennedy said in slow-measured tones:
"I recognize my own shortcomings--the faults in the conduct of my private life. I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them.
"Today, more than ever before, I believe that each of us as individuals must not only struggle to make a better world, but to make ourselves better, too. And in this life, those endeavors are never finished."
Kennedy associates said the senator recognized it was time to acknowledge that his private life was interfering with his role as a leading champion of liberal causes. As a five-term senator who has announced his intentions to seek reelection in 1994, Kennedy has also realized that he is in political trouble at home.
The statement came at a time when Kennedy, the patriarch of one of America's most famous political families, is sliding to new depths in national and state polls. A recent Gallup poll showed that Kennedy had a disapproval rating of 54% and a 22% approval rating.
Even in Massachusetts, where Republicans have found it difficult in the past to recruit a candidate to run against him, one poll this past summer showed that 62% of those surveyed wanted Kennedy replaced in the Senate. This was a major turnabout for voters who had forgiven Kennedy for the 1969 car accident at Chappaquiddick Island that took the life of campaign aide Mary Jo Kopechne.
Kennedy's speech Friday preceded the scheduled selection of jurors next week for the rape trial of his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, in Palm Beach, Fla. The senator, who was at the Kennedy compound when the alleged rape occurred, may be called as a witness at the trial.
His late-night appearance at a bar with Smith and his younger son, Patrick, came under intensive criticism by many who said it was inappropriate conduct for a senator.
"For an elected official, it's tough to do this (give the speech)," said state Sen. Paul Harold, a longtime Kennedy backer who was in the audience Friday. "He had to do it . . . and now he has to stay off the front page of supermarket tabloids."
Billy Galvin, a Democratic politician in Boston, said it helped Kennedy that he delivered the speech after winning a legislative victory in the long battle for a civil rights bill that President Bush would sign.
"His theme was that reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated," Galvin said after the speech.
"He rededicated himself," said James King, a former press aide for Kennedy who now works for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
But Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said Kennedy had to reach out to supporters who felt the senator was hampered by his personal life from taking a more aggressive role in the Thomas hearings.
"This fiasco hurt him," Ornstein said in a telephone interview. "It may be that he cannot be effective on issues like sexual harassment . . . yet the public Ted Kennedy is one of the most effective senators of our time."
Members of the audience Friday, which included many former Kennedy staff members and hundreds of students, were silent when he discussed the confrontation between Thomas and Anita Faye Hill, the law professor who accused the judge of sexual harassment nearly 10 years ago.
"Some of the anger of recent days, the powerful public reaction to the final days of the Thomas hearings, reflects the pain of a new idea still being born--the idea of society where sex discrimination is ended, and sexual harassment is unacceptable," Kennedy said.
A few moments later, however, he in effect acknowledged the widespread criticism that his own relations with women had undercut his effectiveness at the hearings.
"I am painfully aware that the criticism directed at me in recent months involves far more than honest disagreement with my positions, or the usual criticism from the Far Right," he said. "It also involves the disappointment of friends and many others who rely on me to fight the good fight."
Recalling that his three brothers' lives were cut short, the silver-haired Kennedy said: "As I approach my 60th birthday, I am determined to give all that I have to advance the causes for which I have stood for almost a third of a century. . . . In short, I will continue to fight the good fight."
Almost wistfully, he spoke of the New Deal, the New Frontier of his brother, John F. Kennedy, and the Great Society.
"Our day will come again, and we must keep the faith until it dawns," he said. "Individual faults and frailties are no excuse to give in--and no exemption from the common obligation to give of ourselves."