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Kennedy/Chappaquiddick; Nixon/Watergate, Part One

President Richard Nixon with White House tape transcripts, April 1974 (National Archives)

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared on June 14, 1973, as part one of a two-part series of Mr. Buckley’s syndicated “On the Right” columns.

A member of the staff of Senator Edward Kennedy has telephoned me to protest a reference made in this column to Nixon/Watergate as compared to Kennedy/Chappaquiddick.

Here is what this column said, reproaching Mr. Nixon for the nature of his public appearances on the subject of Watergate: “The Chappaquiddick solution of Senator Kennedy, with of course the appropriate modifications, would have disarmed Mr. Nixon’s critics, and made the investigation a much more listless affair. Senator Kennedy, far from encouraging a meticulous public investigation of the Chappaquiddick affair, took refuge in a grand-jury proceeding which in those days was reliably confidential, suffered a grave diminution of his reputation, but by no means a mortal one.”

Senator Kennedy objects that after all, he did take the stand at the inquest whose proceedings went to over 700 pages. Those proceedings were made public. There wasn’t really anything the grand jury could ask him that hadn’t already been answered at the inquest, said his aide.

The inquest, held from January 5–8, 1970, was secret. The proceedings were not made available to the grand jury which met on April 6–7, 1970, though individual jurors wanted to see them. The inquest was published on April 29. The judge who presided over the inquest reported that he did not believe Senator Kennedy’s testimony on two critical points. But the grand jury having retired without access to this testimony, there was no longer any avenue for legal prosecution of the senator.

The similarities between Nixon/Watergate and Kennedy/Chappaquiddick are numerous.

The similarities between Nixon/Watergate and Kennedy/Chappaquiddick are numerous. The New York Times, following Senator Kennedy’s television report on Chappaquiddick, wrote: “…his emotion-charged address…leaves us less than satisfied with his partial explanations for a gross failure of responsibility and more than ever convinced that the concerned…officials” have “failed in their duty thoroughly to investigate this case because of the political personality involved.” More or less the identical words were used after Nixon’s television speeches.

Later the New York Times commented: “…there are so many gaping holes in the story which he has so assiduously avoided filling , there is such an unmistakable atmosphere of calculated evaluation for maximum — or, as the case may be, minimum — public effect, that we cannot consider the matter to have been satisfactorily resolved in any sense.” Kennedy was the subject of that sentence, not Nixon.

Time Magazine referred to Senator Kennedy’s speech as “slightly reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s famous Checkers speech in 1952,” — adding that “for all its smooth carpentry, the television statement did not dispel most…such doubts and questions. “

Concerning the two-day grand jury hearings, the Washington Post story wrote: “…it turned out to be much ado about nothing. Only four witnesses were called, and they testified in all for less than 30 minutes. The jurors were described as reluctant to stop there, but they evidently felt closed in both by Superior Court Judge Wilfred J. Paquet and District Attorney Dinis. ‘Everybody is very unhappy about it because they could go no deeper,’ a friend of one of the jurors recounted later. ‘But they wouldn’t ask for more and the witnesses produced nothing.’”

“Dispatched from Boston to supervise the proceedings, Judge Paquet refused to let the jurors examine the records of the inquest and Dinis apparently discouraged them from conducting a full-scale probe of their own.”

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