Chappaquiddick Tragedy Mars Kennedy Legacy

Wednesday, 26 Aug 2009 01:56 PM

By David A. Patten

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There's a tear in your eye,

And I'm wondering why,

For it never should be there at all.

With such pow'r in your smile,

Sure a stone you'd beguile,

So there's never a teardrop should fall.

-- Lyrics, "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," a Kennedy family favorite

"On July 18, 1969, at approximately 11:15 p.m., on Chappaquiddick Island, Martha's Vineyard, I was driving my car on Main Street on my way to get the ferry back to Edgartown."

Thus began Sen. Ted Kennedy's written statement for police in Edgartown, Mass., on the morning after the disastrous wreck that claimed the life of Mary Jo Kopechne.

Kopechne was a "boiler room girl" in RFK's campaign who had accepted an invitation to a regatta party attended by five other women and six men, including Kennedy.

Shortly after she stepped into Kennedy's sedan, ostensibly for a ride home, she was trapped in the car, struggling for her life as dark saltwater relentlessly rushed into the vehicle after it careened off a bridge.

[Editor's Note: Read “The Last Lion of Camelot: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, 1932-2009” Go here now.]

Kennedy's subsequent, detached explanation of the accident stated: "I was unfamiliar with the road and turned on to Dike Road instead of bearing left on Main Street. After proceeding for approximately a half mile on Dike Road I descended a hill and came upon a narrow bridge. The car went off the side of the bridge. There was one passenger in the car with me, Miss _______, a former secretary of my brother Robert Kennedy. The car turned over and sank into the water and landed with the roof resting on the bottom."

Kennedy left a blank after "Miss" because he wasn't sure how to spell the last name of the young lady whose life had been extinguished the night before.

"I attempted to open the door and window of the car but have no recollection of how I got out of the car. I came to the surface and then repeatedly dove down to the car in an attempt to see if the passenger was still in the car. I was unsuccessful in the attempt.

"I was exhausted and in a state of shock. I recall walking back to where my friends were eating. There was a car parked in front of the cottage and I climbed into the back seat. I then asked for someone to bring me back to Edgartown. I remember walking around for a period of time and then going back to my hotel room. When I fully realized what happened this morning, I immediately contacted the police."

In the days that followed, Kennedy would claim to be as mystified by his own experiences as everyone else was.

In a subsequent TV statement, Kennedy said his efforts to save Kopechne "succeeded only in increasing my state of utter exhaustion and alarm," adding: "My conduct and conversations during the next several hours to the extent that I can remember them make no sense to me at all. Although my doctors informed me that I suffered a cerebral concussion as well as shock, I do not seek to escape responsibility for my actions by placing the blame either on the physical, emotional trauma brought on by the accident or on anyone else."

Legally speaking, Kennedy did essentially escape responsibility. The judge gave him a two month sentence for failing to report an accident, and the sentence was suspended. But politically, the cost would be high indeed. Although Massachusetts voters quickly forgave their favorite son, public reaction to the largely unexplained incident caused permanent damage to Kennedy's reputation.

Author Matthew Smith's 2005 book, "Conspiracy: The Plot to Stop the Kennedys," delved into the many still-unanswered questions about the accident. Kennedy's statement to police only raised more questions, as Time magazine put it at the time "in the absence of an adequate explanation from Kennedy." For example:

  • Why didn't Kennedy's driver, who had transported him to the party and was there, do the driving that night?

  • If Kennedy was driving Kopechne to her hotel room in Edgartown, as stated, why did she leave her purse and her hotel key behind at the party?

  • How was it Kennedy took the wrong turn when he had traveled to and from his destination several times that week?

  • Had Kopechne survived for a time by breathing from a pocket of air trapped in the vehicle after it was submerged, as put forward by John Farrar, the diver who retrieved her from the vehicle?

    Those unanswered questions indicate that, although Kopechne's body eventually was extricated from the unforgiving depths, the full truth of what happened that night, still lies submerged beneath them. Kennedy author Mel Ayton has written that conspiracy theorists should keep in mind that amnesia is consistent with the head injuries Kennedy sustained that night. In a 1980 television broadcast, Kennedy said, "I know there are many who do not believe it but my testimony is the only truth I can tell because that is the way it happened."

    Time magazine would report that, immediately after the accident, a phalanx of 16 Kennedy wise men gathered at the Hyannis Port home. They included former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, adviser Arthur M. Schlesinger, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and noted JFK speechwriter Theodore Sorenson. It is reasonable to assume the topic du jour was damage control. In April 1970, Judge James A. Boyle, who presided over the inquest that probed Kopechne's death, ordered that the 764-page transcript of that inquest be released. It revealed that Boyle did not believe Kennedy was disclosing the entire truth about the incident.

    "I infer," Boyle stated carefully, "that Kennedy did not intend to drive to the ferry slip and his turn onto Dyke [sic] Road was intentional."

    Based on the fact that Kennedy had passed over the bridge earlier that day, the judge said: "I believe it probable that Kennedy knew of the hazard that lay ahead of him on Dyke [sic] Road but that, for some reason not apparent from the testimony, he failed to exercise due care as he approached the bridge. I, therefore, find there is probably cause to believe that Edward M. Kennedy operated his motor vehicle negligently . . . and that such operation appears to have contributed to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne."

    The Globe reported that Kennedy rejected those findings as "not justified." Just a few days after the inquest transcript was released, Boyle retired from the bench.

    Kennedy reached a $141,000 settlement with Kopechne's parents, $50,000 of which his insurance company paid. That fall, Massachusetts voters re-elected him over Republican Josiah Spaulding, with 63 percent of the vote. Kennedy appeared to pay a price in January 1971, when Democrats opted to replace him as majority whip with Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

    In the months that followed, Kennedy would find the U.S. Senate to be his only true escape from an existence that, by then, had taken on at times a nightmarish quality. It was there that Kennedy gradually would build his formidable political legacy.

    'Nothing but the Truth'

    However, heartbreak wasn't even close to giving up its embrace on the senator from Massachusetts. In November 1973, close to the 10th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, the senator received the devastating news that his oldest son, 12-year-old Edward Jr., had cancer in his right leg. After consulting with numerous specialists, Kennedy had to look his son in the eye and tell him his leg would have to be amputated above the knee.

    The surgery was performed on Nov. 16, 1973. As told in "Last Lion," the senator escorted his son into the operating room at Georgetown University Hospital. From there, he rushed to Holy Trinity Church to walk niece Kathleen, RFK's daughter, down the aisle. Her wedding ceremony ended with a moving rendition of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," and more than a few eyes that day broke father Joseph's commandment never to shed tears. Then it was back to the hospital for the senator, to wait at his son's bedside.

    He would shepherd the boy through two years of chemotherapy, an experimental treatment at the time who side effects were even more devastating than they remain today.

    That experience would spur Kennedy's lifelong interest in healthcare. Years later, he attributed his passionate support for the patients bill of rights to watching less wealthy families struggle with the economic burden of caring for loved ones.

    Kennedy's appetite for philandering and robust parties apparently did not diminish. In 1992, Richard E. Burke, Kennedy's longtime personal aide, penned a book titled "The Senator: My 10 Years With Ted Kennedy." It presented a firsthand, sordid portrait of drugs, booze, and sexual licentiousness.

    Burke worked for Kennedy from 1971 to 1981, and the credibility of Burke's insider account has been called into question. In the early 1980s, Burke pleaded guilty to carrying a pistol without a license. In return, charges of filing false police reports were dropped.

    Burke blames his problems on his years of hard partying, much of it with Kennedy, which he says left him with a serious cocaine problem. Also, in 1991, Burke filed for bankruptcy, which led some to suggest his tell-all had a financial motivation.

    Burke's ends his story about Kennedy with the words: "Everything described in this book did happen. This book can't pretend to be the whole truth, but it is part of the truth, and it certainly is nothing but the truth." The Kennedy clan, of course, dismissed it as anything but.

    The question of exactly when, how, and why Kennedy experienced the personal reformation that propelled him to forge perhaps the most impressive legislative record of the past half century has been the subject of much speculation, if not myth-making. By all accounts, his bacchanalian predilections continued well into the '70s, and many biographers credit his 1992 marriage to lawyer Victoria Anne Reggie with stabilizing his life.

    One of the key experiences that contributed to Kennedy's personal evolution was his failed attempt to wrest his party's nomination from incumbent President Jimmy Carter. Kennedy's bid was burdened by the legacy of Chappaquiddick in a post-Watergate era that was increasingly intolerant of politico malfeasance and disco-era profligacy. But the greatest wound his campaign sustained came from Kennedy himself, when CBS newsman Roger Mudd asked Kennedy why he wanted to be president.

    "Well," the senator began, "I'm — were I to — to make the — announcement . . . is because I have a great belief in this country, that it is — has more natural resources than any nation in the world . . . the greatest technology of any country in the world . . . the great political system in the world . . . And the energies and the resourcefulness of this nation, I think, should be focused on these problems in a way that brings a sense of restoration in this country by its people . . . And I would basically feel that — that it's imperative for this country to either move forward, that it can't stand still, or otherwise it moves back."

    It was as if Kennedy's presumption of his divine birthright to America's political throne had led him to overlook the simple question of why he wanted to occupy it. His inability to articulate what he planned to do with the office magnified the underlying doubts about his candidacy.

    In another sense, however, Kennedy's defeat at the hands of a former peanut farmer from Georgia liberated him from the burden of higher office, perhaps also freeing him from the need to live up to the impossible Camelot myth his father and older brothers had fashioned. The Kennedy that emerged from the ashes of defeat in 1980 was suggested by his 1980 convention speech, which biographer Ed Klein says "ranked with the great convention speeches of the past."

    Among Kennedy's memorable lines: "And someday, long after this convention, long after the signs come down and the crowds stop cheering, and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our campaign that we kept the faith. May it be said of our party in 1980 that we found our faith again . . . For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

    Kennedy Blazes Legislative Trail

    Although Kennedy's devoted foes might not wish to admit it, his character flaws did not prevent him from amassing one of the most impressive legislative records ever. Among his accomplishments:

  • He won passage of the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which abolished the national-origin immigration quotas that had been in effect since the 1920s.

  • He played a key role in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

  • He helped shepherd Title IX through Congress in 1972, a major step in the battle against gender discrimination which precluded disparate educational funding based on gender.

  • Other legislative accomplishments include the COBRA Act of 1985, the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which passed in 1997.

  • More recently, Kennedy negotiated compromises with President George W. Bush that led to passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.

  • A longtime advocate of amnesty for illegal immigrants, Kennedy co-sponsored the Immigration Reform Act of 2007, which failed following a grassroots backlash against lax U.S. border control policies.

    Kennedy's legislative accomplishments had a dark side as well. As he worked diligently in the back rooms that Senate deal-makers frequented, his years in the Senate saw a metastatic growth in the size of the federal government. Suggestions that Kennedy's progressive intentions could pave the road to disastrous outcomes were ridiculed as ignorant fear-mongering, even as they are today.

    In 1965, for example, Kennedy dismissed opponents of the Hart-Celler Act, who feared it would contribute to a vast flood of immigration into the United States.

    Kennedy insisted during a hearing: "The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants. It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs."

    Four decades later, with more than 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, Kennedy's lifelong drive to open up the United States to an influx of immigration has had serious — if not devastating — consequences.

    Historically, Kennedy's most tainted legislative legacy may be his vitriolic, personal attack campaign against brilliant originalist legal scholar Robert Bork.

    Former President Ronald Reagan nominated Bork the nation's highest court in 1987. Kennedy's tactics in defeating the Bork nomination have been blamed for indelibly staining the once-dignified process of Senate confirmation. Kennedy's scorched-earth opposition to Bork injected a spirit of bitter partisanship into the process of confirming the future nominations of both parties' presidents.

    "Robert Bork's America," Kennedy charged before those hearing even got under way, "is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individuals rights that are the heart of our democracy."

    Kennedy's broadside was so over the top, and so radical in the context of traditional Senate decorum, that it paralyzed the GOP and mobilized the left. Bork's nomination was defeated.

    "If there had been any question before the Bork nomination of who ran the Senate," the Boston Globe reported, "there was none after."

    Despite Kennedy's influence in the Senate, his reputation as a liberal lion there sustained heavy damage in the early 1990s. His oddly passive performance during the controversial confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas received strident criticism from the left, with whisperers suggesting Kennedy's reticence to launch ad hominem attacks against Thomas stemmed from his own personal failings.

    Polls suggested that Kennedy's reputation also sustained a blow from the pending sexual-assault trial in a Palm Beach, Fla., incident involving his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, who eventually was acquitted of the charges. Although the senator was not accused of breaking any law in connection with the case, the testimony revealed a seamy side to the Kennedy mystique that voters found distasteful.

    These concerns, as well as Kennedy's looming 1994 re-election campaign, led to the famous "mea culpa" speech he delivered at Harvard, in which he confessed, with wife-to-be Victoria Reggie in the audience: "I am painfully aware that the criticism directed at me in recent months involves far more than disagreements with my positions," said the senator, "or the usual criticism from the far right. It also involves the disappointment of friends and many others who rely on me to fight the good fight.

    "To them I say, I recognize my own shortcomings — the faults in the conduct of my private life. I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them."

    Kennedy remarked that, unlike his brothers, "I have been given length of years and time. And as I approach my 60th birthday, I am determined to give all that I have to advance the causes for which I have stood for almost a quarter of a century."

    Kennedy went on in 1994 to defeat a tough Republican challenger election by the name of Mitt Romney — the future governor of Massachusetts and 2008 contender for the GOP presidential nomination — with 58 percent of the vote.

    Kennedy delivered one of the biggest blows to the presidential aspirations of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign on Jan. 28, 2008, when he rocked the political world with his unreserved endorsement of Barack Obama for president. His speech neatly cloaked Obama in the Camelot legacy of his iconic brothers:

    "There was another time, when another young candidate was running for president and challenging America to cross a new frontier," Kennedy said. "He faced criticism from the preceding Democratic president, who was widely respected in the party."

    It was a reference to JFK antagonist Harry S. Truman.

    The senator continued: "And John Kennedy replied, 'The world is changing. The old ways will not do . . . It is time for a new generation of leadership.

    "So it is with Barack Obama," Kennedy concluded.

    However, Kennedy's deteriorating health would limit his campaigning on Obama's behalf.

    On May 17, 2008, Kennedy was airlifted to a Cape Cod hospital and received the diagnosis of malignant glioma: brain cancer. But those who thought even this setback would force Kennedy to retire from the public square were mistaken once again. His rousing appearance at the 2008 Democratic National Convention mobilized party faithful to unite behind Obama's candidacy.

    "My fellow Americans . . . it is so wonderful to be here. And nothing, nothing is going to keep me away from this special gathering tonight!" he declared to loud applause.

    After Obama won the presidency, Kennedy fought his declining health to do whatever he could to assist Obama's effort to yank the wheel of America's ship of state hard to the left. And when Obama visited Pope Benedict XVI in July, he delivered a personal letter from Kennedy, and asked that the Pope pray for him. And Kennedy continued to push for his lifelong dream of nationalized healthcare for all Americans.

    Whenever he could muster the strength, Kennedy ventured onto his sailing yacht Mya with family and friends, ever eager to resume his lifelong love affair with the wind and water off the coast of Cape Cod. To the very end, it was a fitting image: Kennedy at the helm, sailing into an uncharted history that would judge both his accomplishments and his failings.

    Kennedy was the second-longest-serving member of the Senate, behind only West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, and the third-longest-serving senator of all time.

    The passing of Joseph P. Kennedy's last living son arguably concludes one of the most noteworthy chapters in the nation's political history. The younger family members who grew up in Ted Kennedy's shadow — the children, the grandchildren, the nieces and nephews — all ensure that the Kennedy legacy will endure for generations to come.

    In one of his speeches, Joseph's youngest son spoke of carrying forward the legacy that comes with being a Kennedy.

    "Like my three brothers before me, I pick up a fallen standard," he said, "sustained by their memory of our priceless years together. I shall strive to carry forward that special commitment to justice, to excellence, and courage that distinguished their lives."

    [Editor's Note: Read “The Last Lion of Camelot: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, 1932-2009” Go here now.]

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