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Kennedy/Chappaquiddick; Nixon/Watergate, Part Two

Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick (Claire Folger)

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared on June 16, 1973, as part two of a two-part series of Mr. Buckley’s syndicated “On the Right” columns.

Concerning references made here a fortnight ago to similarities and dissimilarities between Kennedy/Chappaquiddick and Nixon/Watergate, and Senator Kennedy’s objection thereto, the tale continues….

The New York Times news story commented on the “remarkably brief inquiry” by the grand jury in April 1970 into Chappaquiddick. “At the very outset of their deliberations the jury ran into a roadblock when a superior court judge refused to let them see impounded records of a secret inquest held last January….The jurors were further frustrated, it was learned, by their realization that District Attorney Edward Dinis, who knew the contents of the report which was forbidden them, and who had already twice investigated the drowning, felt further action was futile. Mr. Dinis faces reelection next fall on the same Democratic ticket with Senator Kennedy….”

The New York Times editorial referred, in quotes, to the “‘investigation’” which “ended with no indictments and no diminution of the mystery surrounding the plunge from a narrow bridge on Chappaquiddick Island last summer of a car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy. The speed with which the inquiry was concluded and the failure to call any of those most directly involved only adds to dissatisfaction widely felt by the public that there remains a multitude of unanswered questions relating to the episode.”

The National Observer cited the pressures on the members of the grand jury to keep mouths shut. “Said Judge Paquet sternly: ‘You have no right and it would be violative of your duty and your oath to your God if you revealed one single thing that happens in the grand jury room. And I don’t mean for a day. I mean forever. Your lips are sealed.’ Seated next to the judge was a Roman Catholic priest, apparently because Massachusetts jurists may have a clergyman of their choice at benchside if they so choose. Thus, the grand jurors, in effect, were doubly warned about the cosmic consequences should they break their silence.” If the grand jurors in the Watergate case had been so effectively silenced, the New York Times and the Washington Post would have appeared, in recent weeks, as great tracts of blank paper.

Senator Kennedy, by making minor concessions (he admitted to a misdemeanor) and by staying out of the public eye, got by with it all. Nixon cannot get away from the public view, and handled himself, in his television statements, more maladroitly than Senator Kennedy.

After the inquest was released, the New York Times editorial said: “….it exposes the utter inadequacy of the efforts of local law enforcement officials to arrive at the truth. Senator Kennedy’s story, too well known to repeat here, Judge Boyle found unbelievable. So do we….The judge’s own conclusions would have been more solidly grounded, however, if the investigation of the tragedy by the appropriate officers of town and state had reflected a determination to get to the bottom of this strange tale.”

The Wall Street Journal said that clearly Senator Kennedy had been treated deferentially by Massachusetts authorities. “….it was a crescendo of bungling in the judicial process, that at no step of the way had Senator Edward Kennedy been subject to the same scrutiny an ordinary citizen would have received in similar circumstances….What seems to have happened is this: that favoritism in the judicial process drew criticism when the public could learn of it, so a lid of secrecy was clamped on so the favoritism could continue with utmost decorum, subject to criticism only after the Senator was better protected from further prosecution.”

The Louis Harris poll, published in Time magazine after Senator Kennedy’s television speech, after he had refused to answer questions by the press, after he worked, in Time’s words, “through his lawyers, to alter the ground rules of an inquest into the death” showed that Kennedy slipped seven percentage points, from 44 percent who believed in August that “Kennedy has not told the truth about the accident” to 51 percent. Nixon slipped eight points, from 50 percent to 58 percent after his television appearances.

So then the similarities are:

1) Neither Kennedy nor Nixon would meet the press.

2) Both Kennedy and Nixon made television statements, and both of them were widely disbelieved.

3) Both Kennedy and Nixon, it was widely alleged, used their influence, or at least their influence was used in their behalf, on the prosecution and the courts.

4) Both lost a considerable amount of their popularity.

Now: The reason I brought it up in the first place was merely to suggest that Senator Kennedy, by making minor concessions (he admitted to a misdemeanor) and by staying out of the public eye, got by with it all. Nixon cannot get away from the public view, and handled himself, in his television statements, more maladroitly than Senator Kennedy.

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