A central figure in one of Massachusetts greatest political scandals died last month with almost no notice — and particularly no note of the controversial role he played in the events that gripped the nation and left a dark hole in Ted Kennedy’s otherwise distinguished Senate career.
Joseph Gargan, Kennedy’s close cousin, died Dec. 12 at age 87 at his Virginia home. There were no formal obituaries. The only mention in Boston was a paid death notice in the Globe, which never referred to his involvement in the 1969 drama at Chappaquiddick.
Only one Massachusetts newsman, Peter Lucas, the veteran Boston political writer who now pens a column for the Lowell Sun, wrote about Gargan’s passing.
“He was able to slip away without hardly anyone noticing,” wrote Lucas in a column last week.
Gargan co-hosted the party at the cottage where Kennedy and his friends gathered with some of the young women who worked them in the “boiler room” of his late brother Robert’s presidential campaign. Amid the heavy drinking, Ted Kennedy left the gathering around midnight with 28-year old Mary Jo Kopechne and drove off a nearby bridge into the water. He escaped, but she drowned.
Gargan was one of two men who went with Kennedy — who had walked back to the party — to the accident scene. They said they attempted to rescue Kopechne but failed. Gargan demanded he immediately go to the police, but Kennedy waited hours before reporting the incident.
Amid a national media frenzy, Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene and was given a two-month suspended jail sentence. But his behavior after the accident was always a blot on his career — one that supporters acknowledged and accepted because of his record in the Senate, but also one that his enemies have never stopped flogging.
Most damaging was a 1988 publication of an interview with Gargan in which he claimed that Kennedy wanted to create a scenario in which Gargan would “discover’’ the accident and inform the police that Kopechne had left the party alone and driven off the bridge. Gargan heatedly rejected the plan. No other evidence has surfaced that Kennedy had wanted to create such a plan.
Politically Kennedy kept his career alive — handily winning reelections in which his opponents rarely if ever raised the issue of Kopechne’s drowning. But nationally, Chappaquiddick — the obscure sandbar-of-an-island that stands alone in the lexicon of political scandals — doomed his chances for the presidency.
Meanwhile, the intricacies of that drama — and the names of those who were the key players — have faded from the political scene.
“It’s the passage of time,’’ say Lucas, who covered the scandal and its political ramifications for the Boston Herald Traveller. “Most reporters don’t know the details of Chappaquiddick and have no idea who Joe Gargan was, when in fact he was a key player in trying to get Teddy to report the incident to the police.”
But a film to be released shortly — and the 50th anniversary of the incident next year — may well resurrect interest in those details. Gargan, however, will have escaped another round of having to revisit that night in July 1969.
Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.