Ted Kennedy
Ted Kennedy; drawing by David Levine

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.

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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.

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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.

He was no doubt aware that Kennedy’s lawyers had a study, made by Arthur D. Little Company, that showed air would be forced out of a car in the condition and position of that Oldsmobile. Mr. Farrar has returned to his story now, advancing it along with a book that suits his extreme-right views, Teddy Bare—which presents Chappaquiddick as part of a literally Satanic plot led by the devil himself. For those without such gamy tastes in hypothesis, there is no reason to doubt that Kennedy did everything he could to rescue Ms. Kopechne at once, or that this was the only rescue effort that had any chance of success.

Most of the discussion of Chappaquiddick has centered on the above points, and Kennedy’s enemies have relied on one or more of them for a mix of titillation and condemnation. But none of them really matters to the fate of the woman or the guilt of the man involved. In so far as attention is focused on them, what really matters goes unnoticed.

II. What Happened?

What does matter, then? Sherrill leaves us with the impression that what actually happened does not matter either—matter, that is, to the judgment voters will continue to make about the last of the four sons of Joseph Kennedy. Sherrill offers no new theory of his own—in fact, no single theory at all. He admits that we simply do not know what happened, and probably never will. But he shows there is no good reason to believe the story Kennedy told. That story, if not absolutely impossible, is improbable in such complex and overlapping ways, so little bolstered by evidence, so protectively guarded with loyal silences all around the principal, that only a foolish credulity will credit it. Sherrill leaves that story, at least, in shreds. Kennedy must, for whatever reasons, live with it. No one else of normal intelligence will want to.

While offering no positive theory, Sherrill gives us most reason to doubt Kennedy’s time scheme and the roles played by Messrs Gargan and Markham. I would like to turn his negatives around and list the few positive things that seem most likely to be true:

1) Until roughly 9:30 on the morning after the accident, Kennedy either did not know about Ms. Kopechne’s death, or pretended not to know. Many things that make no sense on any other supposition fall naturally into place if this is granted. Kennedy’s secret return to Edgartown (either by swimming, as he says, or in a small boat) would allow him to claim he had left Chappaquiddick before the accident occurred, without any inconveniencing testimony from the ferry operator. Back at his inn, Kennedy was either awakened by a noisy party, or pretended to be, and let the innkeeper see him at 2:55 AM. By 7:30 he was outside the inn, where he met Ross Richards, the winner of the regatta’s first heat—the two went to the inn’s second-floor deck and sat casually talking about the upcoming heats (with Kennedy giving no indication he would not be racing again that day).

At 8:00 Gargan and Markham arrived, went into Kennedy’s room, were seen in earnest conversation by Charles Tretter, who was motioned rudely out when he tried to join the talk. At 8:30 Kennedy went to the inn’s desk, ordered the New York and Boston papers, borrowed a dime for the public phone. Around 9:00 Kennedy, Gargan, and Markham returned to Chappaquiddick on the ferry. While Kennedy was “milling” with his friends, the hearse was brought over to pick up Ms. Kopechne’s body. Kennedy went to report to the police station back in Edgartown, while sending his most trusted lieutenant, Gargan, to clear the cabin of occupants and clean up all signs of drinking.

Gargan and Markham claim they spent the night at the Lawrence cottage after seeing Kennedy swim off toward Edgartown, expecting him to report at once to the police. It is inconceivable, if that were true, that they would not warn the occupants of the cottage that police were about to arrive with tragic news. Instead, the two men slept, rose, took some of the party to the ferry for their own return to Edgartown in the morning, and later took, the rest back to their motel before telling them what had happened. Either they knew no report was going to be made, or they did not know what had happened themselves.

The first, most ingenious Chappaquiddick theory, Jack Olsen’s,* maintained that Kennedy did not know what happened after Ms. Kopechne drove off in the car—only in the morning did he find out. But then why the swim, instead of calling for the ferry operator? He did not have anything to hide. Jack Anderson supposed that Gargan was originally induced to take the blame. Others, like Malcolm Reybold in his fictional treatment of the crime’s solution, The Inspector’s Opinion (Saturday Review Press, 1975), suppose Kennedy was simply going to deny knowledge of Ms. Kopechne’s fate, though he had seen what happened after she drove off. There are holes in all these theories; but each of them explains more than Kennedy’s own story, because they all start with the recognition that Kennedy did not originally plan to report anything.

2) After deciding that he would report something, Kennedy kept the report to a minimum of details. Not only did Kennedy artfully disguise, in his report, the presence—even the existence—of the Chappaquiddick party, he made sure that all the people in the party would be well out of town before the police could identify any of them (they were not questioned by authorities until six months after the incident). This meant no mention of what he would ever after call Gargan’s and Markham’s “heroic” rescue attempts—an exonerating factor which, nonetheless, he could not mention in the first report without exposing the two men to instant questioning. Apparently Kennedy did not know what story he would finally tell—either because even he was doubtful of the full truth, or he just did not know how much of that truth he would be forced to acknowledge.

3) Deputy Sheriff Christopher Look probably saw the Oldsmobile in which Ms. Kopechne died at 12:45, an hour after Kennedy claims the accident took place. A recent AP study of the incident cast doubts on Look’s testimony, showing that he “altered his story at least three times, adding detail as time passed.” But the alterations were not contradictory, just a filling out of earlier versions. The fullest version was given under oath, and Mr. Look is a very conscientious and respected part of his community, without perceivable animus (he is a Kennedy Democrat). Look is the kind of officer who will take no drinks when wearing his uniform (as he was that night), who takes notes on incidents that might have evidentiary value, who has been elected sheriff of Dukes County since his testimony (he was deputy sheriff at the time). Sherrill makes a good case for our trusting his basic testimony, and for thinking no other car could have been seen by Look on that night in that place except the Kennedy Oldsmobile.

4) The conspiracy of ignorance is probably cemented with a great deal of real ignorance. Sherrill makes the point that few have missed—that all surviving members of the Chappaquiddick party are Kennedy loyalists, whose resolute silence in the face of many temptations (financial and other) is understandable. But we should also remember that most of them are probably telling the truth when they say they know nothing that would contradict Kennedy’s story from their own observations on that night. Kennedy and Ms. Kopechne apparently went off. The others were kept in the dark—even by Kennedy’s own account of things—until they had been taken from Chappaquiddick Island in the morning. If there was heavier drinking than they admit, if—as Sherrill argues in a very important section of his book called “The Disappearing Party”—people drifted off into the night on walks and whatever, the memories of the evening would be fragmentary at best. Some may have their own pecadilloes to hide. Irrational guilt at partying while a friend died would make them unwilling to reveal even harmless gaiety.

Why, if they know so little, has such an iron code of silence grown up among them? Some may have perjured themselves; the others would not like to reveal that, even if they could. Letting the harmless ones talk would make it harder for those who know anything to remain silent. We are not even sure that Gargan and Markham know what happened—though they presumably know that parts of Kennedy’s story did not happen. If any of the theories that make Ms. Kopechne the sole occupant of the car are true, Kennedy himself may not know exactly what happened, especially if he were drinking heavily or had gone to sleep on the beach or in the woods.

Most of the theories that try to account for all facts make Kennedy even less culpable than does his own story—which raises the question why he took responsibility at all. Why not say he went to the ferry with Ms. Kopechne; she decided to return to the cottage (to get her purse or whatever) in the car, and he never saw her again? The “mistaken turn” story is credible if Ms. Kopechne was at the wheel and returning from the ferry. Sherrill thinks the Look testimony is the principal obstacle to this line of defense—but Look was vaguer about who and how many were in the car than about the car’s appearance and license plate. Olsen claims that Kennedy was in the car when Look saw it, but that he got out so he would not be discovered alone with a woman at that time of night. Sherrill doubts that Kennedy, so careless on other occasions about being seen with a lady, would become a lurking adolescent.

But there are many reasons why Kennedy might have got out of the car at some point—to relieve himself, for instance—when Ms. Kopechne could have driven off. Or he might have made advances to her, in the woods, and she left agitated and drove off the bridge. I don’t believe any of these scenarios; I offer them simply to show what a wide range of possibilities there are if one assumes, as many do, that Kennedy could not have escaped from the car—he so large and pinned under the wheel, with a back brace on, tired, drinking, suffering the impact of the plunge, squirming out a window that was not even fully open.

Why did he lie when it is hard to imagine a plausible alternative that would be more discrediting than the lie? We must not underestimate the Kennedy tendency to “take control” of things. If this could backfire even in an innocent effort like the treatment of John Kennedy’s autopsy, we should not underestimate its power to make a bad thing worse. Perhaps, too, Kennedy owned up to more than he had to, under the impulse of guilt or boy-scout honor. Many have noticed that he seems at times to run from the responsibility of being the residuary legatee of Kennedy claims upon the presidency. We simply cannot know. Few if any know the full truth. What is known is damaging enough. Prying at the tale will not yield more for now. Why keep at it?

III. What Matters

Precisely because Sherrill does not glorify the records of John and Robert Kennedy, he is able to see what is at stake with the youngest brother. He entertains no “betrayal of The Legacy” nonsense, as does Theodore Sorensen—and, needless to say, no “heir to The Legacy” nonsense, as does Professor Burns. Sherrill thinks Edward is the best of the Kennedys—the one least influenced by his father, least committed to cold war gestures and a foreign policy of counterinsurgency. Edward is naturally effusive, without asking credit for a normal responsiveness to people. Most of us are able, without strain, to like dogs and little children, but Robert Kennedy’s friends produced evidence of such affection as if he had invented a new athletic event. The compassion of “Bobby” stunned by its incongruity—a volcano suddenly erupting flowers.

The last Kennedy yields to others gracefully; asks less; does more. He plays hard without being a playboy—since he works hard, too; far harder than his brothers at being a senator. Sherrill calls him a superior senator. Theo Lippman makes a convincing case that he will be a great senator if his own friends just get out of the way and let him. The sheer number of hours spent in hearings or on the floor, the bills sponsored, tasks performed—these show that Edward, alone of the Kennedys, has treated the Senate as a place worthy of a man’s whole effort, and career, and life.

Yet Lippman, in his very useful book, tries at times to answer the old gibe “What if his name were just Edward Moore?” too literally. Kennedy would, on the record, be a superior senator even if he were not a Kennedy, forever prodded toward the White House—yet this argument is self-defeating. He is a good senator because he calls on unique resources—resources available to him because of his family, name, and fate. Even to stay powerful in the Senate he must use some of that valuable glitter, flirt with White House ambitions even if he does not mean to follow through. And that is why we have to break out of the Lippman fiction and keep looking back toward Chappaquiddick. That incident, or its aftermath, does disqualify Kennedy for the presidency.

It is unfair to compare Watergate and Chappaquiddick. One was the symbol of a conscious effort to undermine the Constitution by measures like the Huston plan. The other was, so far as we can know, nothing more than an accident aggravated by negligence. But each of these complex incidents was followed by a coverup. Many who would exonerate Nixon from blame for the original offenses have to convict him for the coverup. Yet Sherrill illustrates, point by point, that the Watergate coverup was bungling and half-hearted next to the grand success Kennedy had at stonewalling, destroying evidence, obstructing justice.

Those Nixonites who kept asking “What about Chappaquiddick?” all through the Watergate exposures had a point, though they didn’t (for the most part) know how to put it. The point was not that “Nobody died at Watergate” (apart even from the fact that one Maryland congressman did commit suicide in the afterwash of Watergate revelations). The point was not the degree of “flaw” found in Nixon’s character or in Kennedy’s (apart even from the fact that Nixon was apparently as uncontrolled in the White House, during his hysterical boozy last days there, as Kennedy’s worst enemies have supposed he would prove). The point is that Kennedy could make his coverup work, against staggering odds, because he was playing to a very important weakness in the nation.

One of the difficulties in conspiracy theories is that they so often suppose a large cast of people who are not only efficient in achieving their purpose but absolutely silent about their achievement afterward. No major Washington operation, recruiting the most stable kind of people, is as leak-proof as the imagined scheme that had to use such oddball instruments as Jack Ruby. How, then, did Kennedy bring off his perfect coverup? The first “conspiracy,” if we are to call it that, was a conspiracy of silence among the partygoers. But that was not a conspiracy of actions coordinated ahead of time to initiate a project. It was a reaction of ignorance among people who were largely ignorant and wanted to remain so.

When we move out from the tight inner circle of those presumed to know most, we reach two larger concentric circles of influential people. The first is that roll-call of Camelot leftovers, the tarnished best and dimming brightest, who assembled at Hyannis Port, either bidden or volunteering, to prop up their sagging standard—McNamara, Sorensen, etc. They are a definite part of the coverup, to which we must shortly return. But it appears that Kennedy told few if any of that group much more than he told the rest of us. They were there to demonstrate loyalty, and they did that by letting him test them with his silences.

But then we move on to the outer ring of responsible people who helped the coverup—none of whom was a Kennedy loyalist in the sense that the party’s personnel were, or the old boys magnetized back to Hyannis Port by their PT-109 lapel pins. Each had his own career, pride, integrity, and intelligence to act as counterweights to any Kennedy influence. They were not bought, nor intimidated by frontal challenge. Yet over and over they buckled, themselves, or bent the law, obeying an almost primal force. One and all played their part:

  1. Police Chief Dominick Arena. Already informed, on the scene, that the car with a corpse in it belonged to Kennedy, he received a summons from the senator asking him to come back to Edgartown. Rather than have Kennedy come to him (and to the police car which was the sole communications center of his force), the swimsuited chief hitched a ride to Mr. Kennedy, asked him for a statement, let Kennedy and his lawyer compose the statement in private, typed the statement up for the senator himself, but never got him to sign it. He let Kennedy go without questioning him on any of the obvious lacunae in the account he typed.

Therefore all the partygoers slipped away, not to be questioned until six months after the accident. He also let the body escape without an autopsy. It was only after long prodding by the press and others that Arena cited Kennedy for leaving the scene of an accident. He lamented to one critical interviewer, “I’ve been so cooperative that they’re going to put me on the stand and make a jackass of me.” That didn’t happen, but only because everyone involved in putting him on the stand had thoroughly, by that time, jackassed himself.

  1. Dr. Donald R. Mills. The substitute medical examiner never did even an external examination of Ms. Kopechne. He never turned her over. He pulled down her slacks only enough to see she had no underpants and to feel her “tummy” (his word). He sent the body to the mortuary expecting an autopsy, but Dun Gifford, whom Dr. Mills identified as “the Kennedy man,” showed up quickly with the undertaker and a death certificate for him to sign. Reporters were there, clamorous with questions: “I was almost pushed to the point of irrationality and blackout as I did my best to answer the barrage of questions.” People are easily disoriented in the presence of the Kennedy name. The doctor’s reward for being impressed was, as he put it later, having to live with the accusation that he was bought by Kennedy money. The power of the Kennedys is precisely that they do not need to buy deference.
  2. Lieutenant George Killen. This state policeman, assigned to the district attorney’s office, told Dr. Mills to stick by the preliminary finding of death by drowning and to defy the press. He also seems to have relayed incorrect information on the departure of the woman’s body from the airport.
  3. Dukes County Special Prosecutor Walter Steele. Mr. Steele, who is made something of a hero in Jack Olsen’s book, tried early on to lead reporters away from any talk of “boozing” at the Kennedy party, and carpentered the minor charge (leaving the scene of the accident) to which Kennedy pled guilty at a hearing. Steele assured the judge at the hearing that he had no reason to doubt Kennedy’s version (still only sketchily given) of what happened.
  4. District Attorney Edmund Dinis. He let the case lie dormant, then tried to take it to the wrong courts for an inquest while hamstringing the grand jury that would have been the normal channel for hearings. After Chief Arena had let the body escape without an autopsy, Mr. Dinis asked for exhumation from a Pennsylvania court, but showed up without having done his homework (he had still, three months after the accident, not talked to any of the partygoers).
  5. Judge Bernard C. Brominski. Even though Dinis showed up ill-prepared at the exhumation hearing, the judge at that hearing, facing reelection in a heavily Catholic district, delayed his finding until after the election and then decided against exhumation because fuller medical knowledge might lead to “speculation”—as if slimmer evidence reduced ill-grounded speculating.
  6. Judge Wilfred J. Paquet. The judge presiding over the grand jury was once defended by Kennedy’s lawyer at the inquest. His instructions for the grand jury were dictates of inaction—he even brought in a priest to pray over the grand jury when he addressed it, a performance surpassing anything Rabbi Korff ever tried, or could get away with, in his efforts for Nixon.

  7. Judge James Boyle. The worst offender of all was Judge Boyle, who: a) presided at the leaving-of-the-scene hearing, and volunteered that Kennedy had been punished enough there, a statement that should have disqualified him from b) presiding over the later inquest on Ms. Kopechne’s death (an unusual procedure of which he had no prior experience), where c) he blocked, directed, or took over the questioning process, defending Kennedy, before d) issuing an opinion that accused Kennedy of perjury, after which, as he himself admitted, e) he was required by law to issue an arrest warrant, though f) he didn’t.

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All these were educated men, not manifestly dishonest or incompetent. They did not coordinate their efforts to save Kennedy; they did not submit to outright manipulation. The mere presence of the Kennedy name was enough to awe and paralyze them. Sane men turn silly before Kennedys. Consider the case of James MacGregor Burns. He was always Camelot’s second team—as theorist, behind Richard Neustadt; as historian, behind Schlesinger; as escort, behind Galbraith. Now, when the first equerries have expressed some doubts about the imperial presidency, he rushes forward as the last man who can talk with a straight face about Camelot.

Part Three of his three-part book is devoted to “The Presidential Prospect”—it asks not only whether Edward can live up to The Legacy (“in many respects he was far better prepared, far better equipped, than John Kennedy had been to lead the nation”), but whether the American people can live up to The Legacy. We get the old “late bloomer” stuff of the cult—Kennedys, it seems, need a whole series of incubations to get themselves thoroughly hatched, the last incubator being the Oval Office. It is a worn routine by now, but Burns dances it doggedly out again for hundreds of pages.

The Kennedys do something to people’s normal critical powers. They move in a magic field of mythic energies. We know how they affect crazy people of the sort who become assassins—and some obviously do not want Edward Kennedy to run for president because he might get killed. Yet he faces danger merely by staying in public life. A more important reason for opposing his presidency is that he might live—live, that is, exerting over a whole nation the stunning force that he brought to bear on all those who touched the Chappaquiddick proceedings. If he had such impact on mature and educated public officials, one can imagine the irrational power he would exert over the electorate at large. The Kennedy obsession filled the fan magazines and tabloids and intellectual journals for over a decade. It reduced professors to giggling school girls. This whole nation was in a conspiracy to go a little crazy on the subject of Kennedys. It was bad for us, and it is bad for Senator Kennedy himself. Whom we would destroy, we first make gods.

When loyalists clustered around Kennedy after the accident, newsmen joked that it was a reconvening of the Cuban missile crisis braintrust. The assembling of so much prestige and talent over an auto accident seemed ludicrous. But nothing involving a Kennedy is beneath crisis-signals for such men. The scary thing is not that the courtiers were stirred to make common front with a man who would not even tell them what happened. The scary thing is that the motive of making a Kennedy look good was no doubt at work during the missile crisis. That motive is considered pre-eminent by men who should know better. It would be at work in any decisions Edward Kennedy might make as president, and the loyalists would be as servile to it as they were in the aftermath of Chappaquiddick. They helped along the coverup by lending it their names and titles, vouching for Kennedy’s indispensability. Their integrity was long ago forfeited to Kennedyism.

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Mr. Sherrill, after tracing the special treatment Kennedy received at each step along his path away from Chappaquiddick, notes the irony of Kennedy’s attack on the Watergate administration: “If this country stands for anything, it stands for the principle that no man is above the law.” Sherrill adds that this “was said, mercifully, to an almost empty chamber.” Nixon came to think of himself as above the law; but not enough people would agree with him to keep him in office.

That is not a problem Kennedy would have. Chappaquiddick demonstrates that ordinarily responsible people act, even against their own interests, on the assumption that Kennedys are by nature above the law. That is precisely the kind of man who should be kept away from the powers of the presidency—not for any flaw in his character, but for the one in ours. Enough of this national craziness. The legal process was badly twisted by the Chappaquiddick affair—but that would be nothing to the effect of giving “the last Kennedy” supreme executive power in the land. It is important to the health and peace of this country that Senator Kennedy never become president.

This Issue

April 29, 1976