“This isn’t about opportunity; it’s about integrity,” Joseph Gargan says to then-U.S. Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the new film, “Chappaquiddick,” which will be released on April 6 nationwide. Kennedy is about to give a national address where he must either announce he will resign from office or explain his actions and remain a U.S. Senator with presidential aspirations.
Gargan was a Kennedy cousin and was one of the two family members who Teddy first told about the car accident that took place late at night on July 18, 1969 on Chappaquiddick Island with a U.S. Senator behind the wheel and a woman who was not his wife in the passenger seat.
That young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, one of the “Boiler Room” girls who worked as a secretary on Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, needlessly drowned in the lake that night. She was eight days from her 30th birthday.
We have come inured to revelations of politicians behaving badly. In states like Illinois, New Jersey and Louisiana, sitting Governors have gone to prison for various crimes. The most recent Governor of Alabama resigned in April and pled guilty to two misdemeanor charges related to using taxpayer resources to cover up an affair. But in these cases, what has been alleged has been more standard corruption charges, which are bad enough.
But the story detailed in Chappaquiddick is several orders of magnitude worse. In fact, it is singular in the history of American politics.
The film depicts Kennedy’s actions immediately after the accident. He makes almost no effort to save her, immediately thinking of the repercussions for himself, his family, and most importantly, for his political future.
He does not phone the police. He does not call for help. Ultimately, he goes to sleep before notifying anyone who could save her.
Instead of calling the police, he went back to a private home nearby and notifies Gargan, and Paul Markham, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts and a close friend who was with them for the weekend. Together they return to the site of the accident, and Gargan and Markham make several failed diving attempts to rescue Kopechne. They leave the scene with a promise from Teddy that he will report the accident. But he never does.
The film does an excellent job weaving in new characters and demonstrating the willingness of dozens of people to repeatedly lie to protect the Kennedy family. It’s quite breathtaking.
The special prosecutor and the local police chief do everything they can to help the Kennedy family.
The victim receives no such favorable treatment or concern.
An autopsy is never performed, and Kopechne’s rumored pregnancy is implied by Kennedy at one point.
Throughout the film, two things really struck me.
The first is how cavalier Kennedy was about killing someone. The victim wasn’t a stranger. It was a former aide to his brother and a young woman he had known well, one who he was trying to recruit to come work for him in Washington.
Only when Kennedy feels duty-bound to notify Kopechne’s parents that their daughter drowned is there a faint sense of the emotional gravity of the situation.
Secondly, it is remarkable to see how the film depicts the Kennedy machine springing into action. Dozens of aides and trusted confidants appear in Hyannis at a moment’s notice, and they are all immediately ready to lie for the family, including leaking false details to the press.
When one lie isn’t enough, they continue lying. Does no one have the decency to care about the deceased?
There are dual concerns for the Kennedy clan.
First, they see a public relations problem. They must decide what to say, to whom, and when. Once the national media receives Kennedy’s sworn statement given to the local police, they can no longer keep the story quiet.
The second concern is a legal one. Could the Senator face legal charges?
They need not worry. His expired driver’s license can be quietly fixed. Could he face manslaughter charges? The special prosecutor assigned to the case is willing to play ball.
In the end, Kennedy pleads guilty to “leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury,” and his two-month jail sentence is suspended. It’s a slap on the wrist.
Ted Kennedy is known today as the “Lion of the Senate,” who died as the fourth-longest serving U.S. Senator in history. He cared deeply about the poor and worked hard for decades to represent them and try to make their lives better.
But when he was faced with a consequential moral dilemma, he failed. Not once, but many times over the week that immediately followed the accident.
“We all have flaws, you said so yourself,” Kennedy says to Gargan near the end of the film.
I can hardly think of a flaw that is more damning than caring more about a future presidential bid than saving a drowning (and likely pregnant) woman.
As New York Times columnist David Brooks often says, “Character is destiny.” When you are tested, your character will be revealed. As the saying goes, “Character is what you do when no one is watching.”
This film reveals the precise direction in which Ted Kennedy’s true compass was always pointed: His own.
Matt Mackowiak is president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group. He’s a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators.