Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the May 14, 1976 issue of National Review.
Robert Sherrill’s The Last Kennedy is certainly very useful, but it does not quite live up to expectations. A year ago, Sherrill published a hard-hitting article called “Chappaquiddick Plus 5” in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. It reminded a national audience of all the contradictions and obvious falsehoods in Kennedy’s non-explanation of the disaster, and appears to have been the precipitating cause of Kennedy’s public statement disavowing his presidential candidacy.
The Last Kennedy goes over the same material as the article, contains an interesting additional discussion of the sharp tactics used to accomplish a coverup and keep Kennedy out of prison, but is, strange to say, less effective than the Times piece. For one thing, Sherrill begins with a long section on the Kennedy background that pads the volume out to a suitable length but also blurs the focus. Here, once again, is the shabby financial career of rapacious Old Joe, the reeking maneuvers of young Jack and the others in Massachusetts politics, the breathless discovery that Teddy’s liberalism is not principled — how could it be? — but self-serving and cynical. Noisome enough it all is, to be sure, but hardly worth rehashing. As expected, Sherrill is devastating on Chappaquiddick. But his conclusion that Chappaquiddick deprived the nation of a great liberal political leader is totally unexpected and of course palpably absurd on the evidence of the first 200 pages of the book.
I admit that I will read anything and everything about the Hyannisport Dorian Gray, ridiculous though that may seem.
I admit that I will read anything and everything about the Hyannisport Dorian Gray, ridiculous though that may seem. Joseph Conrad called it the “fascination of the abomination” — and it no doubt suggests that I possess a touch of decadence myself. But if you are going to read only one book about Chappaquiddick, the best one so far is the volume by Thomas and Richard Tedrow. It is terse, brief, and covers everything. It solves the problem, if there ever really was one, of what actually happened; and — need it be said? — it demolishes Teddy. In summary, the following points (among many others) emerge from Sherrill and the Tedrows:
- The party had been a lot more alcoholic than the party-goers claimed. No one present had any intention of returning to Edgartown that night.
- Kennedy probably did not leave the house with Miss Kopechne at 11:15 P.M. as claimed, in order to catch the ferry. If he did, an unexplained gap of 90 minutes exists between that time and 12:45 A.M., when Deputy Sheriff Look spotted Kennedy’s car on Cemetery Road. At the inquest, lies were told under oath by witnesses who contradicted earlier accounts in order to support Kennedy’s version.
- Kennedy did not turn onto Dyke Road “by mistake.”
- Whether Kennedy was drunk, or sober and negligent — and he has a history of wild driving — the Oldsmobile was traveling at a speed of 40 to 50 mph when it went off the bridge. It traveled 34 feet through the air. “That kind of speed at that time and place indicates criminal homicide in any state regardless of the later conduct of fleeing the scene…” (Tedrow and Tedrow).
- Kennedy escaped from the car through the open window on the driver’s side. As the car hit the water on its right side, this window would have been facing upward, and the incoming water from the smashed window below would actually have aided his escape. N.B.: The car by no means rested in deep water. At low tide, the water depth was only five to six feet. It was low tide from 11 P.M. to midnight. Kennedy’s escape hatch would have been eight to 22 inches above water. Even at 12:45 A.M., with the tide rising, only a foot or two of water would have covered the window. You would think that anyone but a paraplegic could have extricated the woman.
- Careful study of the time sequence and other evidence virtually invalidates the claim that Kennedy, or Gargan and Markham, undertook “repeated” rescue attempts. Note Kennedy’s claim that the current was swift. At the stated time the water was still and shallow.
- Kennedy said he knew what time it was by looking in the Valiant they had driven back in. That Valiant had no clock.
- Though Kennedy, supposedly in “shock,” could summon Gargan and Markham, he could not summon police or other rescue help. To return to the party house, he had to pass five houses, at least two of which were brightly lighted. Across the street from the party house was the volunteer fire station with a glowing red light, open 24 hours a day.
- That night, while in “shock” and supposedly unable to pull himself together, Kennedy made 17 phone calls (five before leaving the island, twelve from the Shiretown Inn). One call to Hyannisport lasted 21 minutes. He also called his lawyer, Burke Marshall (who was not at home), and his writer, Ted Sorensen. He still had not called police or rescuers.
- By 7:30 the next morning, Mary Jo still submerged, Kennedy was dressed in spiffy sports clothes; he chatted amiably with other yachtsmen; he was evidently prepared to race again that afternoon. Some dodge was obviously in preparation as regards the accident.
- Later that morning, now prepared to admit that he had been the driver, Kennedy had the body of Mary Jo removed from Massachusetts jurisdiction at the earliest possible moment and flown by private plane to Pennsylvania. All of the party-house revelers quickly left town and with minor exceptions adopted an attitude of deep stonewall. Even Cardinal Cushing was pressed into service. He later rushed down to Pennsylvania and helped persuade the Kopechnes not to have an autopsy. The last question anyone wanted answered was whether Mary Jo died of drowning or, as seems entirely possible, of asphyxiation. The latter verdict would have meant that she had been alive for some time in the shallow water of Poucha Pond, into which Kennedy claims he repeatedly dove.
- “Under Massachusetts law, a manslaughter charge is mandatory when someone leaves the scene of an accident in which there has been a fatality and negligence is proved” (Sherrill). But through luck and shrewd tactics, the Kennedy team managed to manipulate the legal process and protect the Edgartown Alcibiades.
The idea that this fellow could run for national office is ridiculous. Compared with Teddy, Tom Eagleton was a sure winner. Even as a vice presidential candidate, Teddy would ruin a ticket with George Washington at the top of it.