Chappaquiddick, the movie, is scheduled to open in select theaters on April 6th, 2018. Mary Jo Kopechne’s life closed on July 18th, 1969, when Massachusetts’ Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile off a bridge and into a tidal pond.
According to the movie’s creators, the film purports to tell the story of what happened that night, and in particular why it took Kennedy more than ten hours to report the accident to the local Edgartown police…or any other emergency or rescue personnel.
Therefore, a brief pre-movie refresher on the “Chappaquiddick incident” is in order.
On the evening of July 18th, 1969, while most Americans were glued to their television sets watching reports on the progress of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, the one that put the first two humans on the moon, Senator Kennedy and his cousin Joe Gargan were hosting a cookout and party at a rented cottage on Chappaquiddick Island, an affluent enclave near Martha’s Vineyard. The party was planned as a way to reunite Kopechne and five other women, all of whom had served on the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s (Ted’s older brother) 1968 presidential campaign. A little after 11p.m., Kennedy and Kopechne- the young campaign strategist- left the party together, Kennedy driving, almost certainly intoxicated.
Kennedy, who was an early front-runner for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, claimed they were headed to a ferry slip where they could catch a boat back to their respective lodgings in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. Driving down the main roadway, the Senator, married at the time, took a sharp turn onto the unpaved Dike Road, drove a bit, and then missed the ramp to a narrow wooden bridge, ending up in Poucha Pond. He claimed he just took a wrong turn onto Dike Road, though he and Kopechne had both previously driven down the same road, which led to a secluded ocean beach, lying just beyond the bridge. More incriminating still, Kopechne had left her purse and room key at the party.
Kennedy escaped the submerged vehicle, but Kopechne did not. The Senator from Massachusetts claims he dove down in an attempt to rescue Kopechne, but failed. He then “stumbled” back to the cottage, according to history.com, where he enlisted the help of Gargan and another friend, and went back to make a second attempt to save Kopechne (though drowning typically occurs in under four minutes). Unsuccessful, the men went to the ferry slip where Kennedy dove into the water and swam back to Edgartown, a mile distant. There, he returned to his room at the Shiretown Inn, changed clothes, and re-emerged from his quarters just before 2:30 a.m. He spotted the innkeeper, Russel Peachey, to whom he remarked that he had been suddenly awakened by a noise next door. He asked Mr. Peachey what time it was and returned to his room. Many speculate he did this to establish an alibi.
Gargan later claimed in an interview that Kennedy plotted to make Kopechne the driver and sole occupant of the car. As it turned out, the Senator finally reported the accident to Edgartown Police Chief Dominick Arena at 9:45 a.m. on July 19th, over 10 hours after driving off the bridge with the 28-year-old Kopechne, admitting that he was the driver.
On July 25th, Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of the accident. He received a two-month suspended sentence, and had his license suspended for a single year.
He issued a televised statement later that evening in which he termed his extensive delay in reporting the accident “indefensible,” while denying that he had been involved in any improprieties with Kopechne. (Yeah, right. Now tell us the one about the three bears). He asked his constituents to help him decide whether to continue his political career. He being a Democrat, they gave him a pass, and he resumed his Senatorial duties a few days later. It strains credulity to believe he didn’t use his position and considerable power- he was majority whip at the time- to avoid several more serious charges that easily could have resulted from the debacle. Kennedy continued to serve as a U.S. Senator for another 40 years.
Everyone has their Waterloo, it is said, but Edward “Ted” Kennedy wasn’t going to let the death of some young female keep a good man such as himself down. Even if he caused it. He rose again, shook off any guilt-along with the water, and became the “Liberal Lion” of the Senate. A more accurate moniker would’ve been the “Liberal Liar” of the Senate.
So, go see the movie everybody, but drive carefully. Will the film give an accurate portrayal of Kennedy’s actions- and inactions- that fateful night?
I guess we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.