July 19, 2009
NYC Letter: Chappaquiddick Quadragennial
Day 180 of CHOPE
Mary Jo Kopechne
July 26, 1940 – July 18, 1969*
Forty years ago today,* Mary Jo Kopechne was killed when Senator Edward Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile Delmont 88 off the Dike Bridge into the channel waters of Poucha Pond. Mr. Kennedy escaped the car and surfaced. Ms. Kopechne did not and drowned.
Subsequent events are a hash. If you are unfamiliar with the hash, here is a serviceable account. Several damning indictments of Kennedy are beyond dispute:
- At several points Kennedy failed to use available telephones (e.g., Dike House, Lawrence Cottage, Shiretown Inn, the Chappaquiddick ferry crossing payphone) to notify authorities.
- Later that morning, from the ferry crossing payphone (he was calling friends for advice) Kennedy observed that the car had been discovered. Only then, some ten hours after the fact, did Kennedy report his involvement to authorities.
- The written statement Kennedy gave the police differed significantly from the facts eventually established. The most mendacious differing being his claim:
- When I fully realized what had happened this morning, I immediately contacted the police.
- John Farrar, the diver who recovered Ms. Kopechne's body testified:
- Had I received a call within five to ten minutes of the accident occurring, and was able, as I was the following morning, to be at the victim's side within twenty-five minutes of receiving the call, in such event there is a strong possibility that she would have been alive on removal from the submerged car.
Kennedy pled guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. He was sentenced to the statutory minimum -- two months jail time -- which was concurrently suspended. At the time sentencing judge James Boyle said Kennedy "has already been, and will continue to be punished far beyond anything this court can impose." [Pause.] That is a very low order of justice.
Chappaquiddick is thought by many to have forever queered Kennedy's presidential hopes. [Pause.] That is a higher order of justice.
Why bring all this up now? Kennedy submitted to the courts and justice was meted. That should be the end of it. [Pause.] But it is not. There remains an enduring sense of injustice. There is the improper deference of the court and its officers to a powerful politically connected family. There is Kennedy himself whose remorse never convincingly extended beyond the inconveniences to his career. And finally there is the long slow diminishing of Mary Jo Kopechne in the press.
When admirers of Kennedy refer to Chappaquiddick as a "Kennedy tragedy", they do not bemoan Ms. Kopechne's death. They bemoan the straitening of Ted Kennedy's political ambitions.
In January 5, 2003, Boston Globe writer Charles Pierce wrote:
If she had lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 62 years old. Through his tireless work as a legislator, Edward Kennedy would have brought comfort to her in her old age.
Ted Kennedy killed Ms. Kopechne in her youth, making Kennedy bestowals in her old age the emptiest of speculations.
Earlier New York Times reporter Adam Clymer had written:
Yet his achievements as a Senator have towered over his time, changing the lives of far more Americans than remember the name Mary Jo Kopechne.
Oh! Don't spoil Mr. Clymer's adulation by moping over Ms. Kopechne.
We remember the name Mary Jo Kopechne.
* Though the date of her death is given as July 18, the settled timeline and the conclusions of the inquest suggest that she expired sometime after midnight, that is, on July 19.