The Real Reason Chappaquiddick Disqualifies Kennedy

The Last Kennedy

by Robert Sherrill
Dial, 240 pp., $8.95

Edward Kennedy and the Camelot Legacy

by James MacGregor Burns
Norton, 383 pp., $11.95

Senator Ted Kennedy: The Career Behind the Image

by Theo Lippman Jr.
Norton, 296 pp., $9.95

The ghouls still hover and flap over Dealey Plaza in Dallas, and that is partly the Kennedys’ fault. They moved in with their customary efficiency at taking short cuts, getting special treatment. The body was spirited away, the autopsy report and photographs sequestered, the family protected in ways that will forever breed needless doubts. It does not matter that every conspiratorial theory is poorly supported when not openly crazy or dishonest. The doubts live on.

But the Kennedy treatment given the victim in Dallas was nothing to the interference run for the man at fault on Chappaquiddick Island. Favor and influence led to an extraordinary legal paralysis in the service of political exoneration. And here, too, the doubts will never cease. There is a horrible symmetry at work—Mark Lane playing left-ghoul to the right-ghoulism of Zad Rust’s Teddy Bare (Western Islands, 1971). There is as dreary a topographical expertise all around Dike Bridge, now, as about “the grassy knoll.” Sheriff Look and Esther Newberg will live eternal in polemic, just like Officer Tippet and Marina Oswald. It is depressing to realize that there are thousands of tabloid articles yet to be written on both deaths.

But there seems far less excuse for worrying at petty detail or inconsistency in Edward Kennedy’s story than in Lee Harvey Oswald’s. Even if there was no conspiracy in Dallas, there was a murder, and murder of a president at that. None but the kooky think Mary Jo Kopechne was murdered. However the accident happened, there is no evidence that it was anything but an accident. There was no conceivable political motive at work in her death. And if Kennedy betrayed a flaw in his character, it has surely been displayed to the nation. He admits he was negligent, left the scene of a death, failed to report it, and slanted his first story. What more do we need to know if we are to make any political judgment on his performance? The rest, it seems, is mere ghoulishness. Why rake up scandal with fake tears of pity for the unrecallable dead woman and her bereft family?

All these considerations are clearly at work on Robert Sherrill. He writes with a biting contempt for his material—almost angry at himself, from the tone of the book, for having to wade through this sensational stuff, the more prurient for its vagueness, feeding the ghouls even as he denounces them. Yet he shuffles transcripts with the best of them. Why? The New York Times Magazine commissioned the article on which this book is based in the summer of 1974, when it seemed likely that Kennedy might run for president in 1976, making a rehash of the Chappaquiddick tale inevitable. The Times story was called a preemptive strike, an airing of the case ahead of time to take the sting from the later treatments; or a trial balloon, to see if the scandal was surmountable. It was also called a protective response to the …

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