Chappaquiddick at 50: Ted Kennedy’s long life in public service was a privilege of different times
The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the presidential vision that launched the effort to make it happen is cause for great celebration at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Meanwhile, right next door, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute is commemorating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and “pivotal speeches given by legendary senators,” including Ted Kennedy.
Lost in that carefully curated exhumation of Camelot: the 50th anniversary of Chappaquiddick. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, achieving the soaring goal for space exploration set forth by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and accomplished six years after his assassination. On that same day, the front page of the Boston Globe carried the banner headline, “Ted Kennedy escapes, Woman dies as car plunges into Vineyard pond.” A secondary headline, below the fold, read, “All is go for moon landing today.”
As Charles Fishman writes in Fast Company, that convergence of news makes for “an odd, even jarring collision of achievement and tragedy, braided once again into the story of the Kennedy family.” In essence, on the very day JFK’s space dream was posthumously realized, any hope of passing the torch to the sole surviving Kennedy brother was lost. Sadly, presenting Chappaquiddick in that context also keeps alive the idea of Ted Kennedy as tragic victim of circumstance, with second billing given to the true victim: 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, who could very well be alive today had she not gotten into a car with the senator from Massachusetts.
Reviewing the initial media coverage is a lesson in the deep investment attached to keeping Camelot alive. What also comes across is the temporary distraction provided by the moon landing, almost as if Jack were helping Ted from the Great Beyond.
Ted Kennedy said he and Kopechne left a cookout on Chappaquiddick Island around 11:15 p.m. on July 18. Sometime after that, he drove his car off Dike Bridge and into Poucha Pond, leading to the death of his passenger. He didn’t report the accident until the next morning. And in an era before cellphones, Twitter, and the 24-hour news cycle, it did not make newspaper headlines until July 20 — the same day Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon.
On July 21, the Globe’s entire front page celebrated the moon walk. That day’s editorial celebrated “Footprints on the moon”; and an accompanying editorial cartoon of JFK gazing off at the celestial heavens was captioned “Mission accomplished, Mr. President.” The first Globe editorial about Chappaquiddick was published on July 24, under the headline “Senator Kennedy’s accident,” and it included these words: “Surely, everyone must feel great compassion, both for the lovely young woman who was buried Tuesday, and for Senator Kennedy, the sole survivor of four brothers, who have all given their lives to public service.”
It went on to describe Kennedy as a “superb” senator, “with a brilliant future ahead of him.’” On July 25, Kennedy gave a televised address, seeking “advice and opinion” on whether he should resign. On July 29, a Globe editorial, headlined “A good Senator,” urged him to remain in office. Massachusetts voters agreed. In 1970, his first campaign after Chappaquiddick, Kennedy won reelection with 62 percent of the vote.
Still, Chappaquiddick ultimately ended Kennedy’s presidential aspirations. Today, it’s an open question whether a senator from any state could stay in office after such an event. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota was forced to resign over charges that he groped women during photo ops. Alexander Acosta was forced out as labor secretary for a deal he struck 11 years ago that allowed financier Jeffrey Epstein to avoid federal prosecution of sex trafficking charges. Obviously, no one died in either of those cases.
Kennedy remained in office until his death, in August 2009, at age 77. Widely celebrated as “the lion of the Senate,” he was known for his passionate advocacy of liberal causes, as well as for his ability to find common ground with Republicans. At the 50th anniversary of Chappaquiddick, his long life in public service should also be recognized as a privilege of very different times.