A telephone, not an automobile, exposed the worst parts of Ted Kennedy’s character at Chappaquiddick, a tragic episode explored on the silver screen in a new movie.
One of the film’s producers commented on the picture three years ago, “You’ll see what he had to go through.” But most accounts (I have yet to watch) depict the final product as a more balanced account that shows what Mary Jo Kopechne “had to go through,” too.
Kennedy’s coverup eclipsed the crime when it comes to assessing character. No amount of special effects or dramatic license can escape that truth.
Sure, throwing a party for six, older, married male guests and six, twentysomething, unmarried women marks one as a cad. And yes, driving after downing an ocean of rum and cokes, and doing so despite the lack of a license and the presence of a chauffer, indicts the senator’s judgment. But his actions, and lack thereof, after the midnightish crash represent the worst of the senator at his worst moment.
Ted Kennedy went to bed rather than to first responders after driving Mary Jo Kopechne to her death. Before he called the cops, he called his cronies. He called his German mistress. He called his lawyer. He even called the hotel manager to narc on party goers in another room disturbing his sleep. At ten the next morning, Ted Kennedy finally went to the police.
“She didn’t drown,” the diver who retrieved Kopechne’s body noted. “She died of suffocation in her own air void. It took her at least three or four hours to die. I could have had her out of that car in 25 minutes after I got the call. But he didn’t call.”
Ted Kennedy avoiding responsibility in the early morning hours of July 19, 1969, came as the natural consequence of avoiding responsibility in the 37 years that preceded.
He cheated his way out of Harvard only to gain readmission — and score a touchdown in the 1955 Harvard-Yale game. His father’s connections fixed Ted’s four-year Army enlistment into a two-year stint and ensured vaunted assignments far away from the Korean War in Paris. At law school at the University of Virginia, “Cadillac Eddie” led police on high speed chases that made cops, in the words of biographer Joe McGinniss, almost believe that they pursued a car “driven by a Hollywood stuntman.” The Charlottesville police arrested a seemingly inebriated Kennedy, hiding in his car, without a license in 1958. Despite the convictions related to reckless driving, Kennedy received a speeding ticket shortly thereafter.
His service as an army private constituted his only paid employment prior to his 1962 election to the United States Senate. Liberals, who now revere Ted Kennedy as a saint, then regarded him as a joke. Reinhold Niebuhr called the 30-year-old’s run “an affront to political decency.” The New York Times editorialized, “The victory for Edward Kennedy is demeaning to the dignity of the Senate and the democratic process.”
But Kennedy served a penance of sorts in eventually becoming, after first opposing abortion and supporting the Vietnam War, a champion of liberal causes. The “affront to political decency” transformed into “the liberal lion of the Senate.” Massachusetts voters, refusing to hold the unaccountable senator accountable, reelected him seven times after Chappaquiddick.
“He was my baby,” Rose Kennedy reflected on her youngest, “and I tried to keep him my baby.” Family patriarch Joe Kennedy taught his children, “You must remember, it’s not what you are that counts but only what people think you are.”
Constantly cleaning up a kid’s messes, dispatching legal fixers to make peanut butter and jelly out of every jam, and utilizing PR men to reorient reality only worked as temporary salves to lapses of character. Eventually, character catches up. It did to Ted Kennedy, if not in a court room or in polling stations during his life then, posthumously, in cinemas this weekend.