Saturday, July 18th, was the fortieth anniversary of the day that
Mary Jo Kopechne drowned at Chappaquiddick (an island part of Edgartown,Massachusetts)
in a car driven off a bridge by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
And, still, questions linger. What did Kennedy do that night? Was
he intoxicated? Why wasn’t he prosecuted?
The one question still pondered by political observers on all sides:
did what is universally known as “the Chappadquiddick incident”
keep Kennedy from being elected President? Clearly, it did.
For younger readers who know Kennedy – now 77 and battling
cancer – primarily as the premier voice of liberalism in the
Senate, it is hard to believe how eagerly he was once considered
a natural candidate and probable winner of the office held by his
brother John and pursued by brother Robert until his death. Ted
Kennedy in 1968 , as the New York Times’ Tom Wicker
wrote, “a year before his career was dashed by the Chappaquiddick
incident – was another matter.” That year, Hubert Humphrey
and his advisers in the Democratic Party worked tirelessly to get
the junior senator from Massachusetts to become his vice presidential
running mate. Less than two months after the assassination of his
brother Robert (Humphrey’s chief rival for nomination), Ted
Kennedy ruled out a run on a national ticket for “personal
reasons” – obvious reasons.
After Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon, Kennedy was elected to the
Number Two position in the Senate Democratic hierarchy and polls
showed him the leading Democratic contender for 1972.
All that changed on July 18th, 1969 when Kopechne (one of the “Boiler
Room Girls,” who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s ’68
campaign) left a party at Lawrence College (Massachusetts) with
Kennedy, who later said he asked his driver for the car keys rather
than interrupt him at the party. Driving despite a suspended license,
Kennedy turned off the Dike Bridge, his Oldsmobile plunging into
water. The senator later explained that he swam to the surface and
dove back seven or eight times to try to rescue Kopechne but without
success. He returned to the party, brought back friends to help
in the search, but never reported the incident to authorities until
the next day.
Seven days later, Kennedy pled guilty in court to leaving the scene
of an accident after causing injury. Judge James Boyle sentenced
Kennedy to two months in jail, the minimum sentence for such an
offense, and thus formalized an agreement between prosecutors and