Ted Kennedy: Forty Years after Chappaquiddick

Saturday, July 18th, was the fortieth anniversary of the day that Mary Jo Kopechne drowned at Chappaquiddick (an island part of Edgartown,Massachusetts) in a car driven off a bridge by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D.-Mass.). And, still, questions linger. What did Kennedy do that night? Was he intoxicated? Why wasn’t he prosecuted?

The one question still pondered by political observers on all sides: did what is known universally known as “the Chappadquiddick incident” keep Kennedy from being elected President? Clearly, it did.

For younger readers who know Kennedy — now 77 and battling cancer — primarily as the premier voice of liberalism in the Senate, it is hard to believe how eagerly he was once considered a natural candidate and probable winner of the office held by his brother John and pursued by brother Robert until his death. Ted Kennedy in 1968 , as the New York Times’ Tom Wicker wrote, “a year before his career was dashed by the Chappaquiddick incident — was another matter.” That year, Hubert Humphrey and his advisers in the Democratic Party worked tirelessly to get the junior senator from Massachusetts to become his vice presidential running mate. Less than two months after the assassination of his brother Robert (Humphrey’s chief rival for nomination), Ted Kennedy ruled out a run on a national ticket for “personal reasons” — obvious reasons.

After Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon, Kennedy was elected to the Number Two position in the Senate Democratic hierarchy and polls showed him the leading Democratic contender for 1972.

All that changed on July 18th, 1969 when Kopechne (one of the “Boiler Room Girls,” who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s ’68 campaign) left a party at Lawrence College (Massachusetts) with Kennedy, who later said he asked his driver for the car keys rather than interrupt him at the party. Driving despite a suspended license, Kennedy turned off the Dike Bridge, his Oldsmobile plunging into water. The senator later explained that he swam to the surface and dove back seven or eight times to try to rescue Kopechne but without success. He returned to the party, brought back friends to help in the search, but never reported the incident to authorities until the next day.

Seven days later, Kennedy pled guilty in court to leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. Judge James Boyle sentenced Kennedy to two months in jail, the minimum sentence for such an offense, and thus formalized an agreement between prosecutors and Kennedy’s lawyers.

However, Judge Boyle later oversaw the inquest into Kopechne’s death and found that in driving twenty miles per hour in a car as large as his Oldsmobile, Kennedy was “at least negligent and possibly reckless.” Because of this negligence, Boyle found “probable cause” for a crime, but never issued a warrant for Kennedy’s arrest. A grand jury met in April of 1970 but at the time, Judge Boyle’s report was still impounded. District Attorney Edmund Dinis, a high-profile figure throughout the incident, never sought an indictment for manslaughter against the senator. Four witnesses testified for about twenty minutes. The suspension of Kennedy’s license was extended during Boyle’s inquiry and the grand jury proceedings.

The Chappaquiddick incident was later the subject of “Senatorial Privilege”, a devastating book by investigative reporter Leo Damore.

“Feels It Marks the End for Teddy”

Writing in his diary at the time of reports of Chappaquiddick, then-White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman noted that Richard Nixon “feels it marks the end for Teddy.”
Not exactly. In a nationally-televised address, Kennedy expressed remorse for the death of Kopechne and offered to resign from the Senate. A flood of mail urging him convinced him to stay. In 1970, with Republican opponent Josiah “Si” Spaulding vowing never to make Chappaquiddick an issue, Kennedy won re-election with 62% of the vote.

Fresh from re-election, Kennedy was ousted as Assistant Senate Democratic Leader by colleague Robert Byrd. The Bay State senator took himself out of consideration as a candidate in 1972 and declined an offer from nominee George McGovern to be his running mate. Four years later, as lesser known Democrats such as former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter and Arizona Rep. Mo Udall, Kennedy again took himself out of the running — thus passing on what was perhaps his best year at being elected.

There are many reasons Ted Kennedy lost when he finally made a run for the presidency in 1980. As Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan found it, it is near-impossible to take out a sitting President. But Chappaquiddick has to be considered a factor in Kennedy’s loss to President Carter. First Lady Rosalynn Carter repeated that her husband “always tells the truth” and Carter himself said he was “did not panic under pressure” — not-so-subtle references to Kennedy at Chappaquiddick. In the now-celebrated interview with Roger Mudd on CBS in November 1979, in which Kennedy fumbled the question as to why he wanted to be President, the senator was also asked repeatedly about Chappaquiddick. The rest is history.

My colleague, Jurek Martin, of the Financial Times recently cited Kennedy as a classic example of successful “second acts” in politics. Focusing on his Senate duties, he has been the most vigorous voice for liberal causes and has forged convivial alliances with Republican colleagues such as Orrin Hatch and John McCain. As the late Democratic National Chairman Lawrence O’Brien wrote in 1974, “Despite the Chappaquiddick tragedy, he remains the most visible Democratic leader in America.”

It could also be said that because of the Chappaquiddick tragedy, he never became President.