Kennedy curse: Chappaquiddick film leaves needling questions unresolved

'Chappaquiddick' film poster

Young Americans probably have no idea about the significance of events at Chappaquiddick, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, on July 18, 1969. Those of us old enough to remember the Camelot era dominated by both John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy know that on that date, US politics changed forever. Now a film has been made about events involving the late Ted Kennedy and a campaign worker, Mary Jo Kopechne. I came away from the film with echoes of the “Kennedy Curse” bouncing around in my head and yet another confirmation needling questions will never be resolved. 

Ted Kennedy portrait, LOC
Portrait of Ted Kennedy, the man Republican senator John McCain called “the lion of the Senate” from the US Library of Congress.

The film is a Lionsgate product. I don’t think it would’ve been made otherwise. Newsweek reported the executive producer acknowledged the existence of opposition—”some very powerful people who tried to put pressure on me not to release this movie.” There were reports of opposition to a series aired by Reelz, The Kennedys. Reelz did another series, The Kennedys—After Camelot.

If you read much history of JFK and Bobby Kennedy’s prime years before their assassinations, you will perhaps see why the “Kennedy Curse” is mentioned so frequently. Despite the impressive wealth this family controls, it’s evident they have also had more than their share of tragedy. I think this state of affairs, something the public was aware of the night Ted Kennedy drove his car, with Kopechne a passenger, off a bridge into the waters around Chappaquiddick.

Ted survived the wreck. Kopechne, a longtime Kennedy campaign worker, did not. Ted wrecked the car a little more than a year after his brother Bobby had been killed.

To this day no one knows how Ted Kennedy escaped the car Kopechne died in. No one knows what they were really doing together in the car. Few understood why the senator who had lost two brothers to assassins took 10 hours to report the accident to authorities. No autopsy was conducted on the victim. Ted claimed they were not drinking alcohol, although that is hard to buy because politics and alcohol go together like peaches and cream. The party the senator left with Kopechne, who left her purse behind, was attended by political heavyweights, attorneys, and campaign workers. The female campaign workers were called “the boiler-room girls.”

Parties for campaign workers are nothing new, so there was no reason to see anything nefarious in the gathering of Kennedy supporters. True, some of them were married to people who weren’t present, but that is also common in politics.

It was generally believed Ted Kennedy aimed to become president one day. The events of July 18, 1969 changed that forever. Kennedy was still popular enough to be reelected time and again as US senator from Massachusetts. But even his supporters knew Chappaquiddick would be untenable should he seek the presidency.

The film gets off to a slow start, and there isn’t enough emphasis on the character of the victim Mary Jo Kopechne. What is evident is that the boiler-room girls were expendable. After the accident became public, Ted’s supporters closed ranks and did their best to control the public relations damage. It helped that the US had just landed on the moon, and the TV coverage of astronauts as well as Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” remarks dwarfed any other media topics for weeks. Armstrong’s feat happened on July 20, 1969, two days after the Chappaquiddick tragedy.

For many of us who had admired both JFK and Bobby Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s actions on Chappaquiddick were one of the first instances leading us to question the family’s politicos. Ultimately it would be the book The Dark Side of Camelot (Seymour Hersh) published in the final years of Bill Clinton’s 2nd term in the White House that shed a highly negative perspective on the modern myth we now know as Camelot.

I’d recommend seeing the film if for no other reason than it takes a deep look at a family legitimately known as a Democrat party institution. The film comprises a very even-handed approach, with Ted’s angst over the wreck and over his political future apparent.

What the film won’t do is answer those needling questions. The one that haunts me is simple. How did Ted Kennedy get out of the car Mary Jo Kopechne could not escape and Ted’s friends could not breach in time to save her life?

Kopechne wasn’t the first female to experience tragedy in connection with a Kennedy. Marilyn Monroe’s fate is well known. Lesser known is the still-unsolved murder of one of John F. Kennedy’s lovers, the socialite Mary Pinchot Meyer. Mrs. Meyer, by the way, had been married to “a top CIA-Man”, as the Smithsonian noted.

(Kay B. Day/July 16, 2018)


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