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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 charge of Nixonites that investigative reporting of the sort given to Watergate had not been exercised on and around Chappaquiddick. All this theorizing, mainly frivolous, assumed one thing partly true—that the discussion had entered a new phase when a liberal newspaper ran a long report by a left muckraker like Sherrill. The crazies no longer had a monopoly.

Sherrill’s article was noticed, then, as much for who wrote it, and where, as for what was said. A liberal taboo was being broken. Sherrill turned up nothing really new. If the book were just a filling out of the article, it would not call for any special attention—nor, I should guess, would Sherrill have kept himself awake long enough to write it so well. But Sherrill provoked his own attention by looking for the one truly relevant aspect of the Chappaquiddick controversy. He admits that we cannot know what actually happened that night, and this does not bother him very much. By now he is looking elsewhere.

Admittedly the book’s kernel, the original article, had to recite what is known and unknown, what surmised and denied. But he implies, throughout, what I would like to assert, given the new direction his book makes possible for all later discussion of Chappaquiddick. This is the assertion: Almost all the points of dispute discussed so far are unimportant. They are false issues.

I. False Issues

1) The Chappaquiddick party was less innocent than its participants claim. That is probably true—but only in the way that a thousand office parties have ended up less innocent than people want, later, to remember. Even Kennedy-admirer James MacGregor Burns, telling the clan tale all over again with undiminished awe, admits as much: “The six men who, along with Kennedy, were to be the hosts of the party did not bring their wives because it was an office party …and because, they perhaps reflected, anything can happen at an office party.” But no orgy was planned in such spartan quarters with such unpromising personnel. People drifted off to woods and cars, even by their own account. But neighboring cottages heard only singing, laughter, and ordinary party noises. If there was ordinary party hanky-panky, nothing much should be made of that.

2) Kennedy was taking Ms. Kopechne to the beach for sexual intimacies. Even Judge Boyle made it clear, in his inquest report, that he believed this was the case. Disproportionate attention has been paid to this matter by prurient enemies of Kennedy and selectively naïve defenders. But, again, so what? Even Kennedy’s friends admit he is a womanizer (see Burns, p. 334)—as they admit it of John Kennedy. They justifiably add that, if sexual scandal disqualifies a man from the presidency, then Washington and Jefferson, Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt will have to be disqualified along with Kennedy; perhaps most presidents would be disqualified—the clearest exception being Richard Nixon. As for saving Ms. Kopechne’s honor, the trip to the beach does not mean she had guaranteed compliance beforehand. What began with mere talk and a few drinks could also have ended with that.

3) Kennedy lied about making a mistaken turn toward the bridge. Few who have driven that road can believe Kennedy’s tale—Judge Boyle expressly called his version a lie. In one sense, this is just a corollary of the previous point. If he was not seeking privacy with Ms. Kopechne, what was he doing on or near the bridge? He had to say it was the result of a mistake, if it was not the result of design. This raises what William Buckley calls the Profumo factor—even those who cannot get righteous over sexual friskings might justifiably resent public lying to one’s peers about the matter. But Kennedy can, of course, argue that this was a gallant lie—Ms. Kopechne was no Christine Keeler, and she did not live to clear her name.

Some of John Kennedy’s friends seem to be telling understandable lies about his sex life still, and no one really resents that. Profumo was rejected, and went off to rehabilitate himself, successfully, by penance and good works. Perhaps Kennedy would have done the same if he had been rejected. (Profumo did, after all, first lie and hope to get away with it.) But Kennedy’s Senate peers and Massachusetts constituents spectacularly failed to reject him. There can be no Profumo factor where there was, first, no Profumo effect.

4) Kennedy was drunk. Or Ms. Kopechne was. Or both. Sherrill does the by-now familiar bottle count, and finds again that there was more drinking than participants will own up to. The blood test proved Ms. Kopechne had drunk heavily for her—two or three stiffish drinks the hour before her death, more if she was (as we know) drinking during a longer period. If Kennedy had to sober up, that might explain his delay in reporting the accident. In fact, it explains things too well. It is hard to see why he would invent a story that makes him more responsible, more culpable, and more callous than the truth would. If he was not drunk, his failure to summon aid, to report the crime, to inform her friends, looks almost inhuman—while drunkenness is all too familiarly human. After all, Wilbur Mills confessed to one episode of drunkenness after his lady companion jumped into the Tidal Basin, and he did not suffer the Profumo effect. (After re-election he continued his cavorting and had to do penance; but he has still not been rejected by the voters.)

In Kennedy’s case, there were extenuating factors—a long day, fatigue even at the start of it, the flight from Washington, a swim, a strenuous regatta heat, a party that dragged longer than expected. He might well argue that a few drinks hit him hard in his exhaustion. This would leave him open to a charge of drunken driving or negligent manslaughter—but the latter, the real threat, he ran in any case. If he escaped indictment with his public story, odd and contradictory as that was, there is no reason to think he could not have done as well with a tale of liquor-influenced fatigue.

5) Kennedy might have saved Ms. Kopechne, but he did not take reasonable measures to do so. No matter how the car went into the water, there are no grounds to doubt that Kennedy tried to rescue its occupant, if he was there and conscious during or shortly after the accident. He is not a cowardly or unfeeling man—friends and foes rather feel he is too defiant of danger, takes unnecessary risks. Mere selfishness, if nothing else, would prompt him to save the young woman and spare himself the ordeal of telling how she died. Those who claim he walked past two lighted houses near by are following his own time scheme, which there is good reason to doubt. If the accident took place after midnight, those lights were off. By the time he reached the Lawrence cottage, he had every reason to believe that Ms. Kopechne was dead in the car, or swept out of it by the tide.

Much has been made of John Farrar’s claim that Ms. Kopechne died in an air pocket that grew poisoned after she breathed in it for as long as twenty or thirty minutes. Such pockets are possible, especially when a car sinks rapidly, rightside up, with the windows closed. And rescue is possible, especially in the day, when the car is on its wheels, and when towing equipment is on the scene or can be rapidly summoned.

But the Oldsmobile in question flipped over, dug its nose in the pond’s bottom (making it hard to winch out the next day). One window was already open, and two others were blown out by the impact of the water; the windshield was cracked into spiderweb patterns and the top was mashed in—all factors that tell against Kennedy’s statement that the car was going only twenty miles an hour. As the car rested upside down, water poured in through floor openings. The impact itself was disabling; but Ms. Kopechne, small and slim, a good swimmer, had a better chance to escape by one of the windows (where instinct would take her) than by finding an air pocket and hoping that someone could rescue her in a damaged car at the bottom of a pond in the middle of the night. If she was drunk or unconscious, that would just make it harder for her to seek out and stay with her hypothetical air pocket. Mr. Farrar did not give his theory under oath at the inquest, though he said he had told everything he knew on the stand.

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