Last week marked the forty-nine year anniversary of Chappaquiddick.
Forty-nine years ago Americans began hearing about the death of a 28-year-old female campaign worker who had been a passenger in a car that went off the road into an estuary on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts.
The island’s name: Chappaquiddick.
The driver of the car: Senator Edward M. Kennedy 37.
The passenger’s name went into American history that night. She was Mary Jo Kopechne. Mr. Kennedy lived another forty years.
This year a movie of the event hit the screens. “Chappaquiddick” teaches a new generation about the grimmest of the scandals involving the Kennedy family.
The facts of Ms. Kopechne’s (in that era she was Miss Kopechne) death are simple.
There was a party involving six married men, Senator Kennedy, his cousin and four friends and six single women on the island on July 18, 1969. Liquor was served. At some point late in the evening Mr. Kennedy and Ms. Kopechne left the house by car. They were crossing a narrow bridge toward a deserted beach when Mr. Kennedy who was driving swerved off the bridge and the car overturned in the water. Somehow, Edward Kennedy got out of the car and swam to safety but Mary Jo Kopechne did not and died in the car.
The immediate aftermath is also simple.
Mr. Kennedy went back to the house party and privately told his cousin and another man both attorneys what had happened. The three men went back to the bridge and dived into the water to try to get to the car. Exhausted, eventually they gave up. Mr. Kennedy went to the estuary, dived in and swam to his hotel several hundred yards away and went to sleep. The next day, ten hours after he had driven off the bridge, he reported the accident to the police.
He was not detained and left the area immediately for the Kennedy compound where some of the leading lights of his elder brother’s presidential administration gathered. Robert McNamara and Theodore Sorenson (the speech writer who may have written JFK’s famous line: “(A)sk not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”) helped to craft a message and a legal defense. Mr. McNamara’s presence in this conclave inspired this quote from another participant: “Well, Bob, you handled the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam. Now let’s see what you can do with this one.” Stephen Smith, JFK’s campaign manager at the time of his assassination was also present.
A week after Mary Jo Kopechne’s death, a funeral was held in a small Catholic Church. Mr. Kennedy showed up in a neck brace that, as the movie and historians point out, he did not need. The servile Catholic priest read a New Testament text: “No test has been sent you that doesn’t come to all men” and the service ended with “America the Beautiful.” The monsignor said. “Today, we used it in tribute to Senator Kennedy.”
Ms. Kopechne might have been saved if Edward Kennedy had sought help immediately. A scuba diver for the local Volunteer Fire Department reported:
“There was a great possibility we could have saved Mary Jo’s life. There would have been an airlock in the car—there always is in such submersions—that would have kept her alive.” The diver estimated that “she was alive, easily an hour.”
Mr. Kennedy’s wife Joan was pregnant at the time. She subsequently suffered a miscarriage which she blamed on the Chappaquiddick incident.
In July Mr. Kennedy went to court in a process that took about seven minutes. In the words of the local newspaper:
“In a voice that was at first inaudible, Senator Edward M. Kennedy pleaded guilty this morning in district court to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident after knowingly causing injury to Miss Mary Jo Kopechne without making himself known. Judge James A. Boyle imposed a suspended two-month sentence to the house of correction at Barnstable, with the comment that ‘the defendant has already been and will continue to be punished far beyond anything this court can impose.’”
The priest and the judge were the first wave of what became the accepted narrative: the death of Mary Jo Kopechne was another in the line of tragedies besetting members of the Kennedy family instead of what it was: a possibly drunk US Senator causing a death and leaving the scene.
Historian and Kennedy family friend Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. later added to this plot line: “He has become ever more serious, more senatorial, more devoted to the public good. I think this ceaseless effort at self-redemption may be for Teddy Kennedy what polio was for FDR.” (Franklin Roosevelt endured adult polio and came back to win the presidency four times.)
Mr. Kennedy was re-elected to the Senate in 1970 and six times after that. The only scare came in 1994 when Mitt Romney ran against him and Mr. Kennedy used anti-Mormon prejudice to pull away in the stretch run. (You gotta do what you gotta do.)
In the Senate, Edward Kenned built up a deserved reputation for leading liberal causes but was passed by in the Democratic presidential races by people like Jimmy Carter (nine years older than Mr. Kennedy) and Bill Clinton (fourteen years younger) and Barack O’Bama (twenty-nine years younger. Mr. Obama was not even 8 and living in Indonesia at the time of Chappaquiddick).
It is important to recall that after the assassination of his brother Robert in 1968, many thought that the Democratic nomination was Edward Kennedy’s for the asking and that in all events he was a future president. He was saved in Massachusetts but Mr. Carter demolished him in most states when Mr. Kennedy challenged him in 1980 and although Mr. Kennedy was only 48 at the time he never ran for president again.
Why? Chappaquiddick is the most straightforward answer.