On the evening of July 18, 1969, Mary Jo Kopechne died while trying to free herself from Edward M. Kennedy’s submerged automobile in a tidal channel on Chappaquiddick Island.
The fortieth anniversary of Miss Kopechne’s death passed with scarcely a word’s being mentioned of it in the media. Perhaps it was not simply a matter of liberal bias. With Senator Kennedy now seriously ill, many journalists no doubt considered that it might be unseemly to bring up the subject.
But however uncomfortable it may be to recall the circumstances of Mary Jo Kopechne’s death, Americans must not forget what happened to her, nor must a delicate sensibility prevent us from remembering how a powerful man and his savvy handlers were able to shield him from responsibility for his behavior towards her. Mary Jo Kopechne died because, after recklessly causing an accident, Teddy Kennedy, in his nearly unfathomable self-absorption and political ambition, failed to do what almost anyone would have done to rescue her — namely, report the accident and call for emergency help. Instead, Kennedy thought only of himself and his political career.
Mary Jo Kopechne was 29 years old when she died. She was a bright and idealistic young woman who had worked closely with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in the presidential campaign that ended tragically with his assassination in June 1968. On July 18, 1969, she attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island that reunited several of RFK’s campaign workers and friends. Teddy Kennedy also attended the party, and he and Miss Kopechne left together sometime before midnight, with Kennedy at the wheel of his 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88.
Having taken a wrong turn, and driving too fast along a dirt road, Kennedy was unable to brake properly when approaching Dike Bridge, which had no guardrail. The car went over the side of the bridge and plunged into the channel, known as Poucha Pond. Ted Kennedy managed to escape the submerged and overturned vehicle, but Mary Jo Kopechne did not.
Kennedy later claimed that he made several attempts to swim down to the car to rescue her. He then rested on the shore for a few minutes before walking back to the party. On the way, he passed several houses where he could easily have stopped, asked for help, and notified authorities. With a woman in danger of drowning, that is what any decent person would have done. But Kennedy did not do it. He later said that he had not seen a house with a light on. This would have been a pathetic excuse even if true. The evidence is, however, that the very first house that he had passed, only 150 yards or so from the scene of the accident, had a light on.
When Kennedy finally got back to the party, he enlisted a cousin, Joseph Gargan, and a friend, Paul Markham, to return to the accident scene and attempt a rescue. (What was needed, of course, was a properly trained and equipped emergency diver.) When their efforts failed, the two men — both of them lawyers — attempted to prevail on Kennedy to report the accident and get police and professional rescue help. But Kennedy did not report the accident. Gargan and Markham testified that they themselves did not report it only because they believed that Kennedy was going to do so. What Kennedy did, rather, was return to his hotel room in nearby Edgartown, where he retired for the night. Early the next morning, Gargan and Markham joined him and again pressed him urgently to notify the authorities. Instead, Kennedy found a pay phone and began soliciting advice from trusted friends and relatives. By this point, Mary Jo Kopechne was certainly dead, and Teddy Kennedy had still not notified the authorities.
The police first heard of the incident when a pair of fishermen, having seen the car in the water, went to one of the residences that Kennedy had passed the evening before to make sure that the authorities had been informed. The police sent a diver, who quickly recovered Miss Kopechne’s body. From its positioning in the car, it was clear that she had survived for some time before drowning or exhausting the available oxygen. It was surely a terrifying and perhaps an agonizing death. The diver later testified that, had Kennedy run to the nearest residence and called for emergency help, “there is a strong possibility that she would have been alive on removal from the submerged car.”
The police became aware that the car belonged to Edward M. Kennedy when they ran a check on the license plate. When Kennedy, still at the pay phone, saw that the body had been recovered, he went to the police station, where he made a few more calls and then dictated to Markham a statement for the police. It was carefully crafted to avoid saying very much, thus keeping open a range of explanatory options.
A week later, Kennedy pleaded guilty to the comparatively minor charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. Astonishingly, the local Massachusetts judge, a man named James Boyle, gave Kennedy only the statutory minimum punishment — two months of jail time — which he immediately suspended. In explaining his leniency, Judge Boyle pointed to what he described as Kennedy’s “unblemished record.” One supposes that for the judge, it was a bit like having Mother Teresa in the dock.
Having managed the immediate legal issues, the legendary Kennedy machinery went to work on managing the political problem created by the senator’s shocking behavior. On the evening of his sentencing, one week after Miss Kopechne had died in his car, Kennedy read a prepared statement that was broadcast on network television. The statement was a masterwork of spin — telling parts of the story (in the least unfavorable light possible, of course); leaving out the more inculpatory parts; and vacillating between abject apology and excuse making. The most risible part was when he suggested that his conduct was accounted for by a cerebral concussion and shock, while insisting that, of course, he wouldn’t dream of using his medical condition as an excuse.
He asked the people of Massachusetts whether they wanted him to resign. “Think this through with me,” he said. “In facing this decision, I seek your advice and opinion. In making it I seek your prayers.”
Six weeks later, an inquest into Mary Jo Kopechne’s death was held. Kennedy’s lawyers asked the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to make it a secret inquest, and the judges proved to be entirely compliant. Later, a lengthy transcript of the inquest was made available to the public. The presiding judge was one who had already proven to be friendly from Kennedy’s point of view: James Boyle. Interestingly, Boyle found “probable cause” for believing that Kennedy was guilty of criminal negligence and even possibly manslaughter. Still, he did not issue a warrant for the senator’s arrest.
The district attorney, an ambitious Democrat named Edmund Dinis, almost certainly could have gotten a grand-jury indictment, but he, too, declined to pursue the matter. In fact, when a grand jury looked at the question, Dinis told the jurors that there was not sufficient evidence to warrant an indictment of the senator even on charges of reckless endangerment, much less manslaughter.
Did we mention that all of this happened in Massachusetts? Did we note that the perpetrator was Democratic United States senator Edward M. Kennedy?
In the end, Kennedy’s punishment for his appalling acts and even more appalling omissions at Chappaquiddick was that the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles suspended his driver’s license for a few months.
Many liberals lionize Teddy Kennedy. They like his politics and often thrill to his aggressive tactics against their adversaries. (That list begins with Robert H. Bork, whom Kennedy defamed brutally in a successful effort to block his confirmation as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.) But they should consider what kind of man Ted Kennedy is. His character was revealed at Chappaquiddick and in all that he said and did to evade responsibility for his conduct in the months and years that followed.
It is a sad irony that liberal groups heap praise on Kennedy as a champion of women’s rights. Of course, the reason they like him — and the reason he can always count on them to deflect attention from questions of character and to attack those who raise the questions — is that he is a champion of liberal ideology. Someone who honored women’s rights — someone who honored human rights — would have laid aside any question of political consequences, run to a nearby house, and called for emergency help to rescue a woman whose life, through his own fault, was in grave peril. Such a person would have honored the right to life of Mary Jo Kopechne.
– Robert P. George is McCormick professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. Dermot Quinn is a professor of history at Seton Hall University.