Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Chappaquiddick: America's Selective Memory

 
Excerpts from a remarkably clear-eyed piece by Carl Cannon:
 
"It was just a car accident, really, albeit one involving alcohol, excessive speed, and the late-night machinations of a married man partying with an unmarried woman. Although traffic fatalities happen all-too-frequently in this country, the reverberations of this one reached far beyond the families of the driver who escaped without injury and the passenger who perished. There's no way to know for sure, but the accident at Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island on July 18, 1969 probably cost Edward M. Kennedy the presidency. It certainly cost Mary Jo Kopechne her life.

The one-car mishap was Teddy Kennedy's fault, of course, no one disputes that. And his actions that followed – not summoning emergency personnel who might have saved her life, the cover-up of the facts, not even reporting the accident until the following morning – likely would have landed a man without political connections in prison. That thought has stuck in the craw of Kennedy critics and assorted conservatives for forty years. It was heartbreaking for her family and friends to experience the loss of a lovely, devout, and socially committed 28-year-old woman. For millions of Americans who never knew her, the tragic incident has fed a festering cultural grudge.

The idea that Edward M. Kennedy could be a viable national politician – let alone a much-admired and lionized political figure – has convinced millions of everyday citizens and succeeding generations of conservative activists that among the elites of academia, politics, and the media two standards of behavior exist: One for liberal Democrats and another for conservative Republicans. Along with sweeping changes in immigration law, soaring oratory, and strengthening the nation's social safety net, this reservoir of class resentment is also part of Kennedy's legacy.

Liberals in the media pretend not to see this. Or rather, they blame those who feel aggrieved. This very morning, my old friend James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly employed the usual euphemisms about Kennedy's behavior in his post – and then launched a preemptive strike against anyone who might view Teddy's life with gimlet eyes. "A flawed man, who started unimpressively in life -- the college problems, the silver-spoon boy senator, everything involved with Chappaquiddick -- but redeemed himself, in the eyes of all but the committed haters, with his bravery and perseverance and commitment to the long haul," Fallows wrote.

I like Jim Fallows, and stand in awe of Kennedy's effectiveness as a politician myself. But hold on a minute: The "college problems" were serial cheating. The "silver-spoon" stuff, I suppose refers to, among other things, the speeding and reckless driving that ominously foreshadowed Chappaquiddick. And that phrase "redeeming himself in the eyes of all but the committed haters," well, the problem with that is that to many people, redemption implies that a sinner has come clean.

Certain theological questions present themselves here, ones that are well above, as our president memorably said, the "pay grade" of most political writers. One of them is whether one can completely atone for a sin that is not truthfully confessed. Kennedy did say, in a wrenching 1976 interview with the Boston Globe, that his behavior that night was "irrational and indefensible and inexcusable and inexplicable."
 
Americans are free to furnish their own adjectives. Here is what is known:

On July 18, 1969, Kennedy and five other men – all but one of whom was married – met six single young women who had worked on Robert Kennedy's 1968 campaign. The women were known as the "Boiler Room Girls" for their tireless work in a windowless office in that ill-fated campaign. All of them, especially Teddy, had grieved hard when Bobby had been killed 15 months earlier. Although he was only 37 years of age, Teddy had lost all three of his brothers; two to assassin's bullets, one in the skies over England in World War II. Mary Jo Kopechne had felt gut-shot by Bobby's murder, too. For all of those people who met in the cottage in the island off Martha's Vineyard, getting together must have been cathartic.

Sometime late at night after an evening of drinking, Kennedy and Kopechne went for a drive in his 1967 Oldsmobile. Kennedy placed the time he left at 11:15 p.m. A local cop who believed he saw the car put the time at 12:40 a.m. – significant at the time because Kennedy testified that he was taking Kopechne to a ferry that ran to Edgartown, a ferry that stopped running at midnight. In any event, Kennedy wasn't headed toward the ferry landing when his car careened off Dike Bridge and into the inlet known as Poucha Pond; they were heading toward the beach.

Kennedy got out of the car alive, Mary Jo Kopechne did not. He said he dived down several times to try and rescue her, before walking back to the cottage where his friends were staying. To do so, he passed at least four houses with working telephones, including one 150 yards from the accident with a porch light on – as well as a firehouse with a pay phone. When he got to the cottage, none of the women were told what happened. According to the 763-page coroner's inquest, this was just the first of a series of appalling decisions Kennedy made that night, decisions that stretch credulity.

First of all, he and two of the men, a cousin named Joseph Gargan and a friend named Paul Markham say they returned to the bridge to try and rescue Mary Jo. (If the Edgartown constable who believes he saw Kennedy was accurate, this was impossible.) Next, the men claimed that they drove Kennedy to the Chappaquiddick ferry landing, where he told them not to tell the other women for fear that they would try to rescue Mary Jo – at great peril to themselves – and assured them that he would report the incident to authorities. Then, the men said, Kennedy dove into the water and swam across the sound to Edgartown himself.

Upon reaching Edgartown, Kennedy went to his room at a local inn – it was now 2:25 a.m., -- where he spent the night, and the following morning engaged in small talk about sailing with a local yachter and agreed to have breakfast with the man when Gargan and Markham showed up about 7:30. They asked him who he'd called about the accident only to receive the astounding reply: no one. Kennedy explained it this way at the inquest: "I just couldn't gain the strength within me, the moral strength, to call Mrs. Kopechne at 2 in the morning and tell her that her daughter was dead." But he hadn't called the cops, either, and wouldn't until 9 a.m.

Not reporting a fatal traffic accident is a felony in most places. On Martha's Vineyard, if the driver is a Kennedy, it's not even a matter of official curiosity: The local police chief never even asked Kennedy why he waited nine hours to report what had happened. The state of Massachusetts, citing Kennedy's excessive speed on the bridge, suspended his license for six months. That was it."
 
 

 
 
 
 


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