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Where Was Teddy?

Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick (Claire Folger)

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the November 7, 1988 issue of National Review.

It is too early to break out the champagne, but have you noticed how many books of welcome tendency have been on the best-seller list lately? Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities has been up there for what seems like years; Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind has made him and his publisher rich, while inducing cardiac arrest throughout the leftist academic establishment. You can also add Alison Lurie’s new novel, The Truth about Lorin Jones, a telling spoof of faddish feminism, among other things.

And now comes Senatorial Privilege. At last we seem to have the whole truth about what happened at Chappaquiddick and in Edgartown on the night of July 18–19, 1969, and it’s as ghastly as you always surmised. This book has been on the best-seller list for about nine weeks, but it didn’t have a lot of help getting there. Leo Damore received a large advance, reportedly $150,000, from Random House. When he turned in his manuscript — an exciting and meticulously researched job of investigative reporting — Random House rejected it and sued to recover the advance. In the end, Regnery Gateway brought out the book, and has already grossed $1 million on it. However, as of this writing, Senatorial Privilege has yet to be reviewed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Time, or Newsweek. But it is one helluva book, exciting as the fastest-paced mystery novel, but at the same time utterly responsible, thorough, and convincing.

Mr. Damore interviewed everyone connected with the case, but the core of his book is the testimony of Joseph Gargan, who finally decided to stop covering up for the senator and spilled the beans to Damore. Like many others, I had the impression that Gargan was just another Kennedy gofer, one of the many parasites hanging around Camelot. I was wrong. Gargan is an intelligent man and a successful lawyer. He was a childhood friend of Teddy Kennedy’s and had “looked after him” ever since Teddy was an inept child, whom Gargan had to keep picking up and dusting off. In later years Gargan helped out as a volunteer in various Kennedy political campaigns, meanwhile establishing himself as an attorney. After Chappaquiddick, where he had refused to perjure himself to protect Teddy, he was treated atrociously. Even so, he smoldered for years, before talking to Damore. As Damore reconstructs it, here’s what happened: Kennedy, probably drunk, drove the car off the bridge into Poucha Pond. The impact apparently sprang the door open on the driver’s side — Kennedy could not have fitted his considerable bulk through the window — and he floated free. Then the water pressure slammed the door shut again. Mary Jo Kopechne was trapped in the car, which landed upside down in the mud. The indications are very strong that she remained alive for an indeterminable length of time, breathing in an air bubble. Expert diver John Farrar, the first to reach her, says the posture of her corpse indicated exactly that. Furthermore, she died of asphyxiation, not of drowning; there was very little water in her lungs.

The indications are very strong that she remained alive for an indeterminable length of time, breathing in an air bubble. Expert diver John Farrar, the first to reach her, says the posture of her corpse indicated exactly that. Furthermore, she died of asphyxiation, not of drowning; there was very little water in her lungs.

Kennedy, however, didn’t stick around to find this out. Instead, he hurried back to the party cottage. He ignored houses near the scene of the accident, even though lights were on, and made no attempt to phone for help. Farrar thinks the young woman might have been saved, but Kennedy seems to have been thinking of saving his presidential aspirations first.

At the cottage, he told Gargan and another lawyer, Paul Markham, what had happened, and explained that his cover story would be that Mary Jo had been driving the car alone. Gargan and Markham refused to go along with this fragile alibi. It might well have involved them in perjury, and cost them their licenses as attorneys. And it might have been exploded anyway. Indeed, a local sheriff had seen Kennedy’s car, with a man and a woman in it, turn onto the road to the bridge.

But Kennedy seems to have thought the two lawyers would come around and protect him. He swam back to Edgartown, conspicuously established his presence at the hotel where he was supposed to be staying, only to be amazed the next morning when the lawyers remained obdurate. Nine hours after the accident, he turned himself in at the Edgartown police headquarters.

Whereupon the vast Kennedy apparatus of legal maneuvering, public-relations manipulation, and political intimidation went into operation. Kennedy was to be protected at any cost. Local law-enforcement people were in awe of the prospect of investigating and prosecuting him. Ted Sorensen crafted his deceptive TV presentation. Kennedy at length pleaded guilty to “leaving the scene of an accident,” and got away with it, even though, under Massachusetts law, he should have been indicted for manslaughter, a felony.

Most recently, this gem of a human being had the monumental chutzpah at the Atlanta convention to chant “Where was George?” To which the obvious answer was given from coast to coast: “George was sober, and home with his wife.”

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