It has been 45 years since Ted Kennedy's car plunged into the waters of Chappaquiddick. A young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned that night. Kennedy himself has been dead for nearly five years, but the event is still capable of provoking passionate debates.
With only a few exceptions, Kennedy spent the seven days immediately following the incident in seclusion. When he was seen, he was wearing a neck brace, a silent reminder of the accident. He emerged 45 years ago today — sans neck brace — to deliver a national address on the matter.
Since Bobby Kennedy's assassination a year earlier, Kennedy was widely regarded as virtually a sure thing if he wanted the Democratic presidential nomination; after the accident, the conventional wisdom was that he was damaged goods — damaged beyond repair.
Before the Chappaquiddick incident, Kennedy was often mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate for 1972. Even after Chappaquiddick, his name was still mentioned in connection with the 1976 race. He chose not to seek the nomination in either year, and it seemed his presidential ambitions really were behind him.
Incredibly, he did seek the presidency — in 1980 — but it always seemed to me he did so more out of a sense of personal obligation than anything else.
And he picked a year to run in which it was almost certain that he would not succeed. He ran against an incumbent Democrat, Jimmy Carter, in a year that was shaping up to be a Republican year. Running against an incumbent from one's own party has almost always been a "Man of La Mancha"–esque proposition — and, predictably, at least in the context of history, Kennedy did not defeat the incumbent.
But there was more to it than that. Early in the campaign for the nomination, Carter benefited from a rally–'round–the–flag mentality following the takeover of the American embassy in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
If Kennedy had beaten Carter, it is far from certain that he would have defeated the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan. In hindsight, it really seems the tide was running against all Democrats in 1980.
Before any votes had been cast, Kennedy's commitment was brought into question when he gave a rambling answer to a pretty straight–forward question posed by CBS' Roger Mudd — "Why do you want to be president?"
But on this night in 1969, he didn't speak about the presidency. He spoke about Chappaquiddick. Earlier in the day, he had entered a plea of guilty at the Edgartown, Mass., courthouse; he was given a suspended sentence and his driver's license was taken away.
Thoughts of the presidency probably were part of the equation, though, particularly when you examine the issues he chose to address when he spoke before the cameras:
- His wife, Joan, had not accompanied him that weekend due to "reasons of health." Her absence had been frequently mentioned, and Kennedy apparently felt obliged to say that she was pregnant (she suffered a miscarriage shortly thereafter).
- He denied the "widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct" by himself and Kopechne.
- He denied that he had been under the influence of alcohol while he was driving.
- He acknowledged that his actions after the accident "made no sense to [him] at all."
- He said he had been told by his doctors that he had suffered a concussion and shock, but he didn't use that as an excuse for his actions.
- He said it was "indefensible" that he did not contact authorities after the accident.
- He told viewers that he had enlisted the help of two friends at the party to help try to rescue her.
- He said that "all kinds of scrambled thoughts" went through his head that, in hindsight, seem like nothing short of denial — including the idea that Kopechne may have saved herself somehow and whether "some awful curse actually did hang over all the Kennedys."