Ted Kennedy was likely on track to become president of the United States until the evening of July 18, 1969 when he was involved in a one-car accident on Chappaquiddick Island, Martha’s Vineyard. The accident resulted in the tragic death of a young staffer, Mary Jo Kopechne, and derailed any national political aspirations Kennedy may have had. I do not wish to make light of the tragic situation, but Kennedy violated the oft-repeated mantra of politicians – “never to be caught with a dead woman or a live boy.” The events leading up to the accident, the accident, itself, and the aftermath were extremely suspicious, and nearly 50 years later we still don’t have all the answers.
Briefly, the situation was as follows:
- Kennedy had hosted a party for some female staffers who had served on his late brother, Robert’s 1968 presidential campaign. The staffers were affectionately called the “Boiler Room Girls,” because they had worked in a loud, window-less area.
- The women were all young, attractive and single. Also, in attendance were six male friends and business associates of Kennedy’s who, like him, were older and married. Kennedy had a reputation of being a hard partier and a womanizer. Regardless of what may have occurred, the optics were all wrong.
- Shortly after 11:00 pm Kennedy left with Kopechne, ostensibly, to drive her to the ferry. Curiously, he did not have his chauffeur drive them, and Kopechne did not bring her purse or hotel key with her.
- When approaching the Dike Bridge to Chappaquiddick Kennedy claims he took a wrong turn in the dark and drove off the bridge into the channel. He claimed he was able to escape the car, but, despite repeated attempts, he could not rescue Kopechne.
5. Kennedy did not report the accident to the police for some ten hours, although to do so would have been any reasonable person’s first reaction. His explanation was he “panicked.”
6. Two fishermen found the car and Kopechne’s body the next morning.
7. To add to the tragedy, the diver who recovered Kopechne’s body later testified that she had not drowned. Rather, she had found an air pocket in the car, had lived for three or four hours, and eventually died from suffocation. He added that “I could have had her out of that car 25 minutes after I got the call. But, [Kennedy] didn’t call.”
8. Oddly, the medical examiner cited accidental drowning as the cause of death and indicated as such on the death certificate. He did not order an autopsy, which would have seemed to be a logical step. Later, when the District Attorney sought to have the body exhumed to be autopsied his efforts were blocked by a judge and the Kopechne family.
9. Ultimately, Kennedy pleaded guilty to a charge of “leaving the scene of an accident causing bodily injury.” He was sentenced to two months’, the statutory minimum, which was suspended. Most of the public were astounded that more serious charges, such as manslaughter, were not brought., Their not unreasonable conclusion was that the Kennedy name, money and influence had played a significant role.
So, who was Mary Jo Kopechne? She was born on July 26, 1940 in Wilkes-Barre, PA to a middle class family. Her father was an insurance salesman; her mother was a homemaker. She was an experienced professional. Before working on Kennedy’s campaign she had been a teacher and a secretary and had worked on other campaigns as well. Those who knew her described her as possessing a “demure, serious, ‘convent school’ demeanor, rarely drank much, and had no reputation for sexual activities with men.” She had “hero-worshipped” Robert. To be fair, she didn’t seem to be the kind of person who would have engaged in an illicit relationship with Kennedy or anyone else.
The resolution of the affair left many unanswered questions, such as the following:
1. Why were six mature, rich, powerful, influential men at a private party with six young, single, unattached, attractive women. Like I said, even if nothing untoward happened, the optics were all wrong.
2. Why did Kennedy, who must of known he was impaired, leave with Kopechne and without his chauffeur.
3. What really happened after the crash. Kennedy’s actions as he described them, seem irrational and mendacious, if not criminal.
4. Why did the medical examiner insist the cause of death to be accidental drowning, particularly in view of the positioning of Kopechne’s body and the testimony of the diver?
5. Why did the judge block the DA’s exhumation request.
6. Why didn’t the Kopechne family actively seek the truth?
One obvious answer to all of the above would be the Kennedy name, influence and money, particularly in Massachusetts.
The fallout was far-reaching and permanent. Although Massachusetts voters accepted Kennedy’s explanation of events and returned him to the Senate with large majorities, it was a different story on a national level. Tainted forever politically by the specter of Chappaquiddick, Kennedy never did win the presidency, an office that had appeared to be his for the taking. Many people continued to question his honesty, courage, integrity and judgment, and felt he had used his power, money and influence to his advantage. He was even unable to become the Senate minority whip. Politically, he was forced to settle for the role of elder statesman.
On a personal level, he focused on his role as uncle to his dead brothers’ children. Tragically, his wife, Joan, who had been pregnant, suffered a miscarriage, which was largely attributable to the stress of the accident.
As for the public, some 50 years later we still do not know the whole truth and, likely, never will. Young people may have little or no awareness or interest in Chappaquiddick, but if you do have an interest I refer you to a series on the Kennedy family currently being shown on cable.