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Mary Jo Kopechne and Chappaquiddick: America's Selective Memory

It was just car accident, really, albeit one involving alcohol, excessive speed, and the late-night machinations of a married man partying with an unmarried woman. Although traffic fatalities happen all-too-frequently in this country, the reverberations of this one reached far beyond the families of the driver who escaped without injury and the passenger who perished. There's no way to know for sure, but the accident at Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island on July 18, 1969 probably cost Edward M. Kennedy the presidency. It certainly cost Mary Jo Kopechne her life.

The one-car mishap was Teddy Kennedy's fault, of course, no one disputes that. And his actions that followed not summoning emergency personnel who might have saved her life, the cover-up of the facts, not even reporting the accident until the following morning likely would have landed a man without political connections in prison. That thought has stuck in the craw of Kennedy critics and assorted conservatives for forty years. It was heartbreaking for her family and friends to experience the loss of a lovely, devout, and socially committed 28-year-old woman. For millions of Americans who never knew her, the tragic incident has fed a festering cultural grudge.

The idea that Edward M. Kennedy could be a viable national politician let alone a much-admired and lionized political figure has convinced millions of everyday citizens and succeeding generations of conservative activists that among the elites of academia, politics, and the media two standards of behavior exist: One for liberal Democrats and another for conservative Republicans. Along with sweeping changes in immigration law, soaring oratory, and strengthening the nation's social safety net, this reservoir of class resentment is also part of Kennedy's legacy.

Liberals in the media pretend not to see this. Or rather, they blame those who feel aggrieved. This very morning, my old friend James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly employed the usual euphemisms about Kennedy's behavior in his post and then launched a preemptive strike against anyone who might view Teddy's life with gimlet eyes. "A flawed man, who started unimpressively in life -- the college problems, the silver-spoon boy senator, everything involved with Chappaquiddick -- but redeemed himself, in the eyes of all but the committed haters, with his bravery and perseverance and commitment to the long haul," Fallows wrote.

I like Jim Fallows, and stand in awe of Kennedy's effectiveness as a politician myself. But hold on a minute: The "college problems" were serial cheating. The "silver-spoon" stuff, I suppose refers to, among other things, the speeding and reckless driving that ominously foreshadowed Chappaquiddick. And that phrase "redeeming himself in the eyes of all but the committed haters," well, the problem with that is that to many people, redemption implies that a sinner has come clean.

Certain theological questions present themselves here, ones that are well above, as our president memorably said, the "pay grade" of most political writers. One of them is whether one can completely atone for a sin that is not truthfully confessed. Kennedy did say, in a wrenching 1976 interview with the Boston Globe, that his behavior that night was "irrational and indefensible and inexcusable and inexplicable." Americans are free to furnish their own adjectives. Here is what is known:

On July 18, 1969, Kennedy and five other men all but of one of whom was married met six single young women who had worked on Robert Kennedy's 1968 campaign. The women were known as the "Boiler Room Girls" for their tireless work in a windowless office in that ill-fated campaign. All of them, especially Teddy, had grieved hard when Bobby had been killed 15 months earlier. Although he was only 37 years of age, Teddy had lost all three of his brothers; two to assassin's bullets, one in the skies over Germany in World War II. Mary Jo Kopechne had felt gut-shot by Bobby's murder, too. For all of those people who met in the cottage in the island off Martha's Vineyard, getting together must have been cathartic.

Sometime late at night after an evening of drinking, Kennedy and Kopechne went for a drive in his 1967 Oldsmobile. Kennedy placed the time he left at 11:15 p.m. A local cop who believed he saw the car put the time at 12:40 a.m. significant at the time because Kennedy testified that he was taking Kopechne to a ferry that ran to Edgartown, a ferry that stopped running at midnight. In any event, Kennedy wasn't headed toward the ferry landing when his car careened off Dike Bridge and into the inlet known as Poucha Pond; they were heading toward the beach.

Kennedy got out of the car alive, Mary Jo Kopechne did not. He said he dived down several times to try and rescue her, before walking back to the cottage where his friends were staying. To do so, he passed at least four houses with working telephones, including one 150 yards from the accident with a porch light on as well as a firehouse with a pay phone. When he got to the cottage, none of the women were told what happened. According to the 763-page coroner's inquest, this was just the first of a series of appalling decisions Kennedy made that night, decisions that stretch credulity.

First of all, he and two of the men, a cousin named Joseph Gargan and a friend named Paul Markham say they returned to the bridge to try and rescue Mary Jo. (If the Edgartown constable who believes he saw Kennedy was accurate, this was impossible.) Next, the men claimed that they drove Kennedy to the Chappaquiddick ferry landing, where he told them not to tell the other women for fear that they would try to rescue Mary Jo at great peril to themselves and assured them that he would report the incident to authorities. Then, the men said, Kennedy dove into the water and swam across the sound to Edgartown himself.

Upon reaching Edgartown, Kennedy went to his room at a local inn it was now 2:25 a.m., -- where he spent the night, and the following morning engaged in small talk about sailing with a local yachter and agreed to have breakfast with the man when Gargan and Markham showed up about 7:30. They asked him who he'd called about the accident only to receive the astounding reply: no one. Kennedy explained it this way at the inquest: "I just couldn't gain the strength within me, the moral strength, to call Mrs. Kopechne at 2 in the morning and tell her that her daughter was dead." But he hadn't called the cops, either, and wouldn't until 9 a.m.

Not reporting a fatal traffic accident is a felony most places. On Martha's Vineyard, if the driver is a Kennedy, it's not even a matter of official curiosity: The local police chief never even asked Kennedy why he waited nine hours to report what had happened. The state of Massachusetts, citing Kennedy's excessive speed on the bridge, suspended his license for six months. That was it.

For many Americans, myself included, this was a sad and strange event that did not define a man's life. This attitude is especially true of those who had personal dealings with him, ranging from the high and mighty (George W. Bush) to the less exalted like myself. I had the chance to have lunch with Kennedy a couple of years ago when I was a teaching fellow for a semester at Harvard's Institute of Politics, housed at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Teddy was on the board of the IOP, and took an active interest in the center, the undergraduate students who populated it, and the fellows themselves. At lunch he was invariably charming and interesting.

Pete Wilson had the same reaction to Kennedy when he came to the Senate. I'd known Pete when he was mayor of San Diego and when he arrived in Washington as a newly elected Republican senator from California I went to see him in his ornate Capitol Hill office. "So who do you like the best of all the senators?" I asked. "Oh, that's easy, Pete said. "Ted Kennedy."

Kennedy had paid a call on Wilson, offered him a cigar, and made him feel comfortable. He also asked the freshman from the other party about issues on which they had common interests to see how they could work together. President Bush told me a similar story at a White House Correspondents' Association dinner in 2004. So did Nancy Reagan, after Ted Kennedy saved a moribund dinner honoring her husband with a bang-up speech lauding Ronald Reagan, a president he'd battled with relentlessly on policy.

That is why the Kennedy "haters," to use James Fallows' word, rarely seemed to include the Republicans who knew Teddy personally. Many ordinary Americans without access to the corridors of power saw it differently. They should not necessarily be discounted as wrong, either. In protesting Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon, Kennedy thundered, "Is there one system of justice for the average citizen and another system for the high and mighty?" These words, uttered five years after Chappaquiddick, are ubiquitous on conservative websites where they are offered up as evidence, not only of Kennedy's hypocrisy, but the mainstream media's as well.

Similarly, to movement conservatives, Kennedy's attack on Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork is offered up as a case study in the press's historic double standard. Immediately after Bork's July 1, 1987, nomination, Kennedy took to the Senate floor.

"Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions," he said. "Blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is -- and is often the only -- protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy...."

It is an article of faith among conservatives that if a Republican senator had launched an attack this personal and vitriolic not to mention wildly exaggerated against a nominee named by a Democratic president that liberals would have gone ape and that the ladies and gentlemen of the Fourth Estate would have made the intemperate conduct of the Republican senator the main issue. The point is that Ted Kennedy surely earned the accolades he is receiving today. He also earned the disapproval he is receiving among Americans who saw him only from a distance, who judged him by his words and deeds, and found him wanting.

I believe Teddy Kennedy was aware of this reality, and accepted it. Twenty-nine years ago, after the inquest cast doubt on his version of events at Chappaquiddick, Kennedy briefly took issue with the report, then went about his duties: In a speech to a Boston business group, he lambasted Nixon's decision to extend the Vietnam War into Cambodia, he consented to his first broadcast interview since Bobby Kennedy's death, and he kept an appointment to narrate Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait. As Time magazine noted at the time, this engagement included a bit of irony: The opening lines of Lincoln read by Kennedy that night included this passage. "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We ... will be remembered in spite of ourselves."

Carl M. Cannon
Senior Washington Correspondent

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