Ted Kennedy never grasped magnitude of Chappaquiddick

Ted Kennedy might have become president – Richard Nixon certainly thought the runt of the litter was going to be the Democrat nominee against him in 1972.

But the Kennedys’ dream of a restoration of “Camelot” were shattered 50 years ago this week, as Teddy’s mother’s 1967 Delmont 88 Oldsmobile plunged off a small bridge on Chappaquiddick Island into a tidal pond, drowning Mary Jo Kopechne.

Teddy killed the 28-year-old “girl,” as he called her, and he was allowed to plead guilty to… leaving the scene of an accident.

Not vehicular homicide, or drunk driving, or reckless driving, or driving without a license. How Kennedy was it? Just like his nephew, Joe Kennedy II, four years later turning over a Jeep on Nantucket and putting a 21-year-old woman in a wheelchair for life – young Joe was fined $100.

That’s Kennedy justice in Massachusetts. In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.

As horrific as Mary Jo’s death was, at least it prevented Teddy from becoming president. His 47 years in the Senate were catastrophic enough for the United States – the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, just to cite the most glaring example.

Would the Free World have prevailed in the Cold War if Teddy had been president, instead of Ronald Reagan? Remember, in 1983, he dispatched to Moscow one of his Senate drinking buddies – John Tunney — to tell the Kremlin that he wanted to collaborate with the Reds to defeat Reagan for reelection, before Dutch could finish off the Evil Empire.

Teddy’s pitch? He told the Soviet butchers that he could get his fellow travelers who controlled American TV to toe the Red line on behalf of whoever was the Democrat nominee, preferably himself.

This was all documented after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the secret KGB files were opened. Oddly, the story never seems to have been reported on any of the networks that Teddy bragged about controlling.

Kennedy could never escape the dark cloud of Chappaquiddick. Afterwards, Nixon asked J. Edgar Hoover to check out gossip that Mary Jo Kopechne had accompanied Teddy to Greece when he negotiated Jackie’s pre-nuptial agreement with Aristotle Onassis in the fall of 1968.

That turned out to be untrue, but Nixon (and everybody else) just assumed it was a matter of time until Teddy got into more trouble.

“You watch,” Nixon told his aides in April 1971, “I predict something more is going to happen… I mean, it’s just a matter of judgment. I mean, he’s just gonna….”

Get drunk again. Nixon didn’t even have to finish the sentence. For the rest of his life, Teddy never got the memo: Drinkin’ doubles don’t make a party. What made Milwaukee famous made a loser out of him.

He tried to run for president once, in 1980, but he couldn’t even come up with a coherent answer when an obsequious TV interviewer asked him why he wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps. Teddy obviously hadn’t thought about much of anything beyond his next drink since… Chappaquiddick.

In March 1980, after what was billed as a major foreign-policy address at Columbia University, he was in a limousine headed back downtown on 114th Street when suddenly stereo loudspeakers in a fraternity house began blaring out that famous Simon & Garfunkel standard:

“Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”

Nixon was right, of course. Something more did happen, again and again. Barroom brawls. The traditional Easter weekend in Palm Beach. Slurred Senate speeches. Mumbling interviews, botched speeches. His buffoonery became a staple of late-night TV comedy.

Ten years after his death, an attraction at his final taxpayer-funded boondoggle, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Dorchester, is called the “Senate Immersion Module.”

I kid you not. Teddy never quite grasped the magnitude of his crime. Perhaps as a Kennedy he wasn’t capable of it. If he had been, he’d never have named his last dog Splash.

Last year Hollywood finally made a movie about that fateful evening, after many aborted attempts. Over the years, there have been endless jokes about possible titles:

Profiles in Cognac… The Full Delmonty… The Bridges of Dukes County…. Dude, Where’s My Car?… The Man from C.H.I.V.A.S…. Ice Cube Station Zebra… The Drowning Fool… Sponge Ted No Pants… 20,000 Beers Under the Sea… In Golden Tidal Pond… Grumpy Olds Man….”

In 1974, another of the “boiler-room girls” at the party issued a statement on the fifth anniversary of Mary Jo’s death:

“My friend Mary Jo just happened to be in the wrong car at the wrong time with the wrong people.”

Rest in peace, Mary Jo Kopechne.

(Listen to my 20-minute podcast on the 50th anniversary of Chappaquiddick at on the home page)

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