Friday, July 18, 2014

The Death of Mary Jo Kopechne

Mary Jo Kopechne was, by all accounts, a serious and hard–working member of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's staff. Apparently, she seldom drank or got involved with men.

To say she was merely a secretary would belittle her contribution — for she did much more than type letters and fetch coffee. She was an important member of the team, staying up all night once to retype a speech Kennedy was going to give on Vietnam while Kennedy and his advisers made alterations.

A product of parochial schools, she taught for awhile after earning her degree from a Catholic liberal arts college in New Jersey, but her passion was for politics, originally working for a senator from Florida but quickly moving on to Kennedy's staff.

During Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign, she was one of the so–called "Boiler Room Girls," an affectionate nickname given to six young women on Kennedy's staff. Perhaps more than any, Kopechne was devastated by Kennedy's assassination in June 1968 and temporarily left political campaign work shortly thereafter, vowing not to return to Washington because "I just feel Bobby's presence everywhere."

But she returned to Washington before the year was out.

Fast forward to Friday, July 18, 1969. It was the weekend of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was also the weekend of a regatta in Edgartown, Mass., in which Sen. Edward Kennedy was competing.

Kennedy hosted a reunion for the "Boiler Room Girls" at Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., that Friday evening.

"Among the many responsibilities Ted had inherited from his brothers," wrote historian William Manchester, "was one for lifting the morale of the family's loyal campaigners." That was the objective of the gathering that night.

Actually, it wasn't as if the girls hadn't seen each other since the assassination. It was the fourth such reunion in a year's time, but the girls all seemed to enjoy being with each other — and a group of men who were there, too. Among them were a Kennedy cousin, one of his school buddies, an attorney and Kennedy's driver.

By 11:15 that night, Kennedy later told authorities, he decided to leave, and Kopechne asked him for a ride to her hotel. Kennedy agreed and told his driver to stay where he was since he seemed to be having a good time.

Kopechne didn't tell anyone she was leaving with Kennedy — and left her purse and hotel key behind. Odd behavior for someone who supposedly wanted to return to her hotel.

Accounts of what happened after that vary.

Kennedy later told local authorities that he made a wrong turn and went off a bridge. He said the car turned over and landed on its roof under water. Kennedy couldn't recall how he got out of the vehicle, only that he did and that he made repeated attempts to rescue Kopechne but was unsuccessful.

He returned to the party on foot and told authorities he saw no houses with lights on between the accident scene and the party, but it was established that Kennedy's route back to the party would have taken him past four houses, at least one of which had a light on all night.

Kennedy would have found a working phone at that house, as well as the one where the party was being held, but he didn't contact authorities until the next morning. Instead, he and two of the men at the party returned to the accident scene, where both of the men reportedly made several attempts to reach Kopechne.

When those attempts also failed, the men parted company. Kennedy's companions later said they assumed Kennedy would contact authorities, but he did not. Instead, he returned to his hotel, where he nursed the fantasy that Kopechne had, somehow, managed to escape the vehicle — and that he would learn she was all right the next day.

The next morning, however, two fishermen found the submerged vehicle, and the authorities were summoned. A scuba diver was dispatched, and he was the one who located the body. Upon hearing that a corpse had been found, Kennedy turned himself in to the local police.

The diver who found the body said she did not drown but, rather, died of suffocation. The position of the body suggested she had found an air pocket and had been trying to breathe. It was estimated that it took her three or four hours to die.

The diver was convinced she could have been saved. "I could have had her out of that car 25 minutes after I got the call," the diver said. "But he [Kennedy] didn't call."

A week later — and only a couple of days after Kennedy (wearing a neck brace) and his wife attended Kopechne's funeral — Kennedy spoke on national television. Of that I will have more to say next week.

There was considerable uncertainty about the timing of the accident. Based on Kennedy's version of events, it could have happened any time after 11:15 p.m. on July 18, but a deputy sheriff who had been working at a regatta dance that night said he encountered a dark car containing a man and a woman that appeared to be lost between 12:30 and 12:45 a.m. on July 19. He said he got out of his car and approached the other vehicle, intending to offer assistance, and the car drove off.

The inquest report only said the accident happened sometime between 11:30 p.m. on July 18 and 1 a.m. on July 19.

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