Properties of Blood Volume I, the Tenth and Final Chapter 10: The Demands of Blood, Part A
Now every man to aid his clan
Must plot and plan as best he can.
One week after leaving the scene of the accident (on July 18, 1969) in which his secretary had drowned in shallow water, Senator Edward Kennedy addressed the people of his state:
"I have requested this opportunity to talk to the people of Massachusetts about the tragedy which happened last Friday evening. This morning I entered a plea of guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident. Prior to my appearance in court it would have been improper for me to comment on these matters. But tonight I am free to tell you what happened and to say what it means to me…"
The speaker, after making a series of improbable statements—that he was not driving under the influence, that he had had no personal relationship with the late Mary Joe Kopechne, etc., went on to speculate:
All kinds of scrambled thoughts — all of them confused, some of them irrational, some of which I would not have seriously entertained under normal circumstances — went through my mind during this period… including such questions as whether the girl might still be alive somewhere out of that immediate area, whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys, whether there was some justifiable reason for me to doubt what has happened and to delay my report, whether somehow the awful weight of this incredible incident might, in some way, pass from my shoulders.….
I watched Senator Kennedy’s performance on television with a group of friends in a Charleston restaurant and bar. We were all more or less liberal Democrats of one sort or another (I was considered the Lefist, because I rejected all things Rotarian), and we were commiserating with the poor confused senator, when our professor remarked that he was related to the owner of the house where the party took place. He casually explained that the house was frequently used for parties attended by powerful men, mostly married, and their young and pretty female assistants. This cold shower of fact rather changed the tone of the conversation, which turned to speculation on whether the senator had deliberately murdered his mistress, when she became inconvenient, or merely left her to drown—as in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. We shall never know.
The most curious part of the speech, it has always seemed to me, was the reference to “some awful curse” hanging over the heads of the Kennedys. Even for committed liberals, this phrase seemed a little too self-serving. A man goes to a party, causes the death of an employee, leaves the scene of the accident and spends hours calling top political advisors on the telephone before informing the authorities, and, instead of questioning his own behavior and moral judgment, portrays himself as the victim of a curse. Is the idea of a “curse” nothing more than shorthand for the consequences of irresponsible behavior?
More traditionally, curses can result from a person’s deliberate as well as an accidental mistake. When Ted’s older brother Jack was murdered, the sister-in-law of the late President Diem of Vietnam, saw it as a kind of vengeance on the President for ordering the arrest and assassination of her husband and brother-in-law. How she came to learn of US complicity in the murders, I do not know, but they are no secret among some intelligence officers who served in Vietnam. The “curse” struck again, when Robert Kennedy was murdered by a Palestinian. The murderer’s only explanation was that he felt betrayed by Senator Kennedy’s support for Israel. Perhaps it is not entirely irrational to hold powerful men accountable for acts of political opportunism. More recently, the curse claimed the life of John Kennedy, Jr., an amateur pilot who flew his light aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean. The FAA declared the cause of the accident to be “pilot error.”
I bring up these old bits of gossip as a means of showing that old habits of thought die hard. Despite all the teachings of Christianity and Enlightened liberalism, it is hard to break free entirely from the notion of curses and inherited guilt. It is a more comfortable explanation than imprudence or failures in moral responsibility. No matter how many times we are told—by teachers, preachers, and readers of the news—that each individual is solely responsible for his own crimes and sins, we cannot help slipping into the language and thought of collective responsibility and blood guilt.
In the world of popular entertainment, where good character and sound judgment are rarely encountered, curse theories are everywhere. There are Hollywood movies, whose stars are said to be cursed, and even something called “Club 27,” whose membership consists of entertainers who died at that age. An entire sports franchise—the Chicago Cubs—is said to suffer under “the billygoat’s curse” that resulted when the Greek proprietor of the Billygoat tavern was allegedly ejected, with his goat, from Wrigley field.
The Cubs have a second curse, said to have been inflicted by a New York Giants player whose error handed them a pennant, but at least a dozen other baseball teams claim to be cursed. Entertainment reporters speak of the “curse of the Barrymores,” a family of actors prone to drinking and drugging themselves to death, and, according to one theory, the late Buddy Holly, not content with taking Richie Valens and “the Big Bopper” with him when his plane crashed, is said to have cursed a series of other musicians somehow associated with him: Eddy Cochran, Gene Vincent, Ronnie Smith, Cowboy Copas, and Holly’s admirers Bobby Fuller, Clyde McPhatter, Phil Ochs, and Bobby Darin. Mass-culture Americans are too liberated to revere the saints or worship Christ, but they do adore the planet and pay devotion to dead celebrities.
Cowboy Copas and Bobby Darin are not jealous gods, but political sensitivity is an exacting—and vengeful—master. Young Germans are made to feel guilty for the crimes of the Nazis, and Black militants quite regularly demand compensation for the sufferings of slave ancestors even though the last slave-owning adults were born in the early 1840’s and few of them would have been alive by the end of the First World War. The guilt, implausible as it sounds, is even communicated to the descendants of the three fourths of Southerners who did not own slaves, the descendants of Union soldiers, and the grandchildren of East European immigrants.