Fifty years ago Thursday, Chappaquiddick Island was an obscure spit of land, known mainly to those who lived or vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard. A day later it was famous.
Late on the evening of July 18, 1969, Senator Edward M. Kennedy had driven his car off the Island’s Dike Bridge, landing upside down in a tidal pond, and failed to rescue his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. Her body was found in the vehicle the following morning. They had come from a party for mostly female staff who had worked on the ill-fated campaign of Robert F. Kennedy the year before.
To understand the long-term significance of that event, apart from the tragic loss of a young woman’s life, one must have a sense of time and place. As of that day, it was generally assumed that Ted Kennedy, then 37, would someday be president of the United States. A year earlier, in the wake of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles while running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Ted had squelched a forceful drive by some loyalists to secure him the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, who would lose a close race to Richard M. Nixon in November, was nominated.)
In coming weeks, Kennedy would joke about whether he had lost his only chance.
My job, being junior in the Globe’s Washington Bureau, was to report on the Massachusetts congressional delegation, a task that meant dealing with Kennedy or his staff almost daily. Given Kennedy’s prominence and presumed future, this was a heady time for New England’s largest newspaper.
In hindsight, there were some clouds in this picture. My friend Lee Bandy, a reporter for The (Columbia, S.C.) State, told me that “the girls” in Senator Strom Thurmond’s office told him of being badgered for dates by the young, married senator from the Bay State. I didn’t dismiss the report entirely, but knew that Kennedy was unpopular in the South and could be the target of some political gamesmanship.
Then in April, a report rocketed around Washington, though not yet in print, that the senator was drunk on a flight back from a congressional trip to Alaska. He was chanting “Eskimo Power,” playfully heaving pillows at staffers, and saying, “They’re going to shoot my ass off the way they shot Bobby.” The Globe was not on that plane, but a Newsweek reporter named John Lindsay was. At that time, he wrote only a memo to his editors.
Saturday, July 19, was marked by particularly steamy weather, even by Washington’s tropical standards. I had just returned from taking my three kids to a public swimming pool, at about 3 p.m., when my home phone rang. It was my bureau chief, Jim Doyle, telling me what was known at that time about the Kennedy car being found in the water. Doyle, using a contact from Bobby’s former staff, had secured an address for Mary Jo Kopechne. He told me to go there.
I arrived at a modest town house on the edge of Georgetown. A woman was getting out of her car with groceries. I helped her carry in the groceries. Her name was Margaret Carroll. She was obviously stunned but composed. She had heard her housemate was dead but knew little else. Sitting on a couch in her living room, she asked me what had happened, and I gave her the limited information I had.
At some point, I asked if I could use the bathroom, which happened to be upstairs. On a bulletin board nearby I saw a phone bill with long distance numbers, initialed by each woman (there were three living in the house) who had made the call. I took down the MJK numbers. One was Mary Jo’s family home. I phoned the information into Boston, and a Globe reporter later conducted a painful though brief interview with her parents, their first contact with the press.
Although Neil Armstrong was to take his first steps on the moon the next evening, July 20, the Chappaquiddick story would be a major story for weeks and months to come. Kennedy ultimately pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident causing bodily harm. A two-month jail sentence was suspended. The lenient outcome was highly criticized, but after the deaths of his brothers, Ted was probably not going to be jailed in his home state. Time and place. But “Chappaquiddick” came to symbolize a flawed personal record for Kennedy that extended for years into his problems with alcohol and women, problems he seemed to overcome, particularly after his later marriage to Victoria Reggie Kennedy.
As is well documented, Ted Kennedy went on to have a celebrated career as a legislator. His presidential ambitions were less celebrated. He foundered badly in a challenge against President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 nomination.
Late that Saturday afternoon in July 1969, Lindsay, the Newsweek reporter from the Alaska trip, dropped by our bureau office. He told us about the memo he had written to his editors. He told us that now they wanted him to write it for the magazine. The political honeymoon of Edward M. Kennedy was over.
Matthew V. Storin was editor of the Globe from 1993 to 2001.