On July 18th, 1969, during a party on Chappaquiddick Island, Senator Edward Kennedy drove his car off a bridge. His passenger in that card, Mary Jo Kopechne, was unable to get free of the crash and died.
At that time, Ted Kennedy was the only living son of Joseph Kennedy. Ted’s elder brother Joe was killed in World War II. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was shot and killed while campaigning. It was widely assumed that Ted would pick up the mantle of his brothers and become President in the next election.
That all came to an end with the death of Mary Jo. Against the odds, Kennedy’s career in the Senate survived and thrived, but when he did eventually put his name up for President, challenging the sitting President Carter, he lost miserably. The influence of the Chappaquiddick incident was never overt in this failure (his campaign was not well managed, to say the least) nor in subsequent elections where he decided not to put his name forward, but as a subtext it was ever-present.
For those of us of a certain age, roughly corresponding to that of Kennedy’s own children, the name of the island is more likely to seem political than geographical. I recall that in the 1980s, when it was clear that Teddy could advance no further in politics, jokes about “a bridge” could easily register with any pub crowd in Boston. For the generation closer to Kennedy’s own, one remembers the actual incident, blotted out as it was by the Apollo 11 moon landings.
As one reviewer explained, for those who are under 40 today, this meaning of “Chappaquiddick” would not register. For those under, say, 70, the details are probably scant – the whole incident being remembered for its political fallout, not the personal and only indirectly.
The movie Chappaquiddick might well impact that middle cohort the most. Those of us who know the broad strokes but have never really known the details can use this film to put it all into context. I have to wonder, for those too young to understand the reference, would one ever be tempted to even put in the time to watch a movie about a bunch of dead people and an event that happened even before your parents were born?
The film walks a number of fine lines. The production is subdued, presumably to respect the memory of Kopechne while nevertheless telling the story of the perpetrator rather than the victim. The truth is also a slippery business here. To this day, the dwindling number of people with direct knowledge of the events of that night are unlikely to tell all. The only whole truth that ever existed was taken to the respective graves with Kopechne and Kennedy. For myself, as I watch it, the knowledge is always there that this is a dramatization, not an exposé, and I digest it accordingly.
A little shocking to me was the involvement, not just of Joseph Kennedy, but of the up-until-recently Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The level of influence that the Kennedys could bring to bear probably shouldn’t be surprising, but it still is.
There are several huge questions left in the official record that, absent an unrevealed confession from Ted Kennedy, will always remain unanswerable. The film simply leaves them ambigous. For example, why did Kennedy and Kopechne disappear into the night alone if they weren’t up to something untoward? How is it possible that two people go together in a car into a pond and one comes out completely unscathed while the other remains trapped for hours?
The movie was released on September 17th of 2017. The distributor of the film has hinted that there was pressure to suppress the movie. I recall that when it was coming out, it seemed to be difficult to find out information about the release. Whether that is because it was an independent film and not expected to be a big money maker or whether politics was involved, I am not qualified to say. It’s release was only weeks before the stories about Harvey Weinstein were published in the New York Times and the New Yorker. While the movie did not overtly accuse Ted Kennedy of harassment or abuse of power with respect to Kopechne, I would still call the timing rather apropos.
Back in 2018, at least one State Democratic Party has renamed their big summer fundraising dinner from the “Kennedy/Clinton Dinner” to the “Eleanor Roosevelt Dinner.”