Was Teddy Even in the Car

This documentary from the BBC concludes with an astonishing theory about Chappaquiddick: Ted Kennedy was not in the car when it went off the bridge.

Sounds crazy at first, doesn’t it?   Sounds like a conspiracy theory even though it is not remotely like a conspiracy theory.  It’s a tragedy of chance, misjudgment, obsessive media fascination, and hubris.

The mystery of Chappaquiddick that has never been solved is a rational explanation of why Teddy– even assuming his self-interest– waited 9 hours to report the accident, and then  claimed to have been driving.  And then, why did he claim that he and Joe Gargan and Paul Markham returned to the site of the accident and tried, for 45 minutes, to rescue Mary Jo Kopechne from the car?  Why did nobody report this second attempt until more than a week after the incident?

Why is there a mystery?  Because one must assume that, had Kennedy been driving, (and again, assuming his self-interest), he could not have reasonably decided that pretending there had not been an accident and waiting until the next day to report it would have been smart.  Kennedy was no fool.  When a police officer approached his car in which he and Mary Jo were probably having a romantic moment or two he realized his political career was on the line and so he drove off.  Once he was away from the police officer, he would have to assume the officer would return to his car and follow him.  If we are to believe him, he then had a terrible accident in which he luckily escaped– something some experts believe to be unlikely– but was unable to rescue Miss Kopechne.

It is hard to believe that at that moment he would have seriously embarked on the course of action he claims to have taken, walking by occupied houses with the lights on, and the fire station, recruiting Markham and Gargan to go back to the car with him, not reporting the accident to anyone, and then going back to his hotel to sleep it off.  His claimed actions are implausible.  Possible, but implausible.

Most significantly, Kennedy, when asked to give the time of the second rescue attempts, said that he checked the clock in the car as they proceeded to the bridge.  There was no clock in the rental car they were driving.  He lied.  If he lied about the clock, clearly, his account of the second rescue attempt can’t be trusted.  He was clearly making it up.  Gargan and Markham, as good Kennedy loyalists, went along with this version.  And once it was out there, on the record, they were not likely to recant.

Add one more detail: the police officer who saw the Kennedy car parked on the side of the road, with two people in it, gave a very specific time for the sighting.  He had just left work, so his evidence is reasonably reliable.  And if it is reliable, there is no way that Kennedy had time to do all the things he said he did before returning to his hotel room by roughly 2:25 a.m. when he was seen by hotel staff complaining about the noise of nearby party.  It simply isn’t possible.

The BBC documentary advances this scenario: Kennedy, caught with his pants down, drove off and then stopped.  More than anything, at that moment, he did not want to be a married Senator caught drunk-driving in a car with an attractive young woman at a cottage retreat.  This was the 1960’s:  for a leading federal politician– party majority whip– his career would been in tatters.  So, what to do?  He couldn’t very well leave Mary Jo at the side of the road to walk back to the cottage alone, so he got out of the car and told Mary Jo to drive on alone and, if stopped, tell the policeman she was going to beach for a midnight swim.

It’s a bit of a strange explanation, but a lot less strange than the explanation Kennedy gave in his official statements.  And there are good reasons why it makes more sense in terms of Kennedy’s behaviour afterwards than his own explanation: he appeared to be calm, relaxed and composed the next morning according to witnesses, until the arrival of Gargan and Markham who, the BBC believes, first informed him that his car had been found in the water and Mary Jo was drowned.

Now, consider what is plausible here.  Either Kennedy admits that he drove off towards a secluded beach with a young single woman who had been drinking a lot and then left her to drive off in his car so they wouldn’t be caught together by a police officer, and the young woman crashed the car and drowned as a result, or….  How about fabricating a less awful story about trying to drive her home– that’s it!– and getting lost– yes! — and then this tragic accident– and his heroic attempts to rescue her.  That’s the ticket!  That won’t play too badly for too long.  Everyone will get over it and on to the presidency!

“Chappaquiddick” is a fine film, artistically.  But I don’t buy it’s version of events.  I find the BBC’s story more credible.  And I see the compelling irony of it all: had Kennedy not tried to fudge to the story in his favor, he might have become president after all.   Instead of a drunk driver callously leaving a young girl to drown in a car he had wrecked, he would have been a philandering charismatic Senator who was the last see Mary Jo Kopechne alive before she had a tragic accident and drowned.   The Senator is naughty but not preposterous.   Most importantly, if he had only known, he surely would have done something, because the Senator cares.

It’s not a favorable story, by any means, and it still might have ruined him, but in my opinion, it would have been far more survivable, politically, than the one he made up.

But let’s step back for one moment.  All of this assumes that Chappaquiddick is a gigantic story because it really is monumentally important and really affected so many people.  Let’s not minimize the tragic results for the Kopechne family, but, to keep it in perspective, it’s not nearly as monumental or important as everyone seems to think it is.  Is is dramatic, yes, and sensational, but it’s not really all that important.  Laura Bush was also involved in an accident that included a fatality: she never talked about it on the record with anyone.  It passed.  She moved on with her life.  Whatever happened in Chappaquiddick– please ignore the hysterical right-wingers here– was indisputably an accident that just happened to be linked to salacious insinuations about the party at the cottage.  Senator Kennedy, and those young women might very well have been there for the obvious reason that they enjoyed each others’ company, and the the company of the men they had worked closely with on the Robert Kennedy campaign.  They shared political ideals and were looking forward to Teddy’s presumptive run at the presidency in 1972.

It should never have been that big of a deal, and, in many ways, the infamous Reader’s Digest hatchet job on Teddy involved more evil intent than anyone at that party at Chappaquiddick ever had.

Here’s a digestible conjecture: would the U.S. have a national, single-payer health plan today if Chappaquiddick had not happened?  It is very, very possible, because the main reason it never passed during the Carter Administration was because of tension between Majority Leader Ted Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter over who was going to get credit for it.  (For the record, Kennedy claimed his alternative plan was better, but later seemed to acknowledge that any plan would have been a major success for the Democrats.)


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