By Mitchell HadleyLate on the night of July 19, 1969, a car driven by Senator Edward M. Kennedy veered off a bridge spanning Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. With Kennedy at the time was a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne, who had once worked on the campaign of Kennedy's late brother Robert. The two had attened a party that evening, and Kennedy offered to drive Kopechne to the ferry, where she could return to the mainland. Kennedy dismissed his chauffer and offered to drive himself. Witnesses say alcohol was served at the party.
Kennedy was able to escape from the sinking car, and made his way to shore while Kopechne remained trapped inside.
It was not Kennedy’s first encounter with trouble while behind the wheel of an automobile. While a student at the University of Virginia law school, he was cited for reckless driving four times, including once when he was clocked driving 90 miles per hour in a residential neighborhood with his headlights off after dark. His Virginia driver's license was never revoked.
After swimming to shore, he walked back to the party. At least one source reported that his route would have taken him past several houses and a fire station. He did not stop for help.
At the party he told his cousin Joe Gargin (a lawyer), and Paul Markham, who hosted the party, what had happened. The three men returned to the scene of the accident, and later said they tried for close to an hour to rescue Kopechne, without success. Gargin and Markham returned to the party, at Kennedy’s request telling no one about the accident. They assumed Kennedy would call the police, as all three men knew he was required to do.
Kennedy decided to return to his hotel. The ferry had stopped running for the night, so Gargan and Markham drove Kennedy to the crossing, where Kennedy then swam across the 500-foot channel to his hotel in Edgartown, where he fell asleep. He did not call the police.
The next morning he was seen talking "casually" to the winner of the previous day's sailing race. Later in the morning Kennedy, Gargan and Markham returned to Chappaquidick Island, where Kennedy made several phone calls from a payphone. He talked with his lawyer and with Kopechne’s parents. He did not call the police.
By this time the car had been discovered, and a police diver had found Kopechne's body. He later testified that Kopechne's body was pressed up where an air bubble would have formed. Before dying, she had scratched at the upholstered floor above her head. The diver said that had he been called within five to ten minutes of the accident, there would have been a “strong possibility that she would have been alive on removal from the submerged car.”
Police checked the car's license plate and found it was registered to Kennedy. When Kennedy learned the body had been discovered, he crossed back to Edgartown and went to the police station.
Mary Jo Kopechne’s corpse was whisked out-of-state to her family, before an autopsy could be conducted. Her family received a payment from Kennedy’s insurance. They never sued.
In later years, her family successfully fought an attempt to have her body exhumed and autopsied. Kennedy's family paid their attorney's bills.
There was speculation about the relationship between Kennedy and the younger Kopechne. The bridge over which Kennedy drove would have taken them not to the ferry crossing, but to a secluded beach.
Kennedy eventually pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, and received a suspended sentence of two months.
Incredibly, the voters returned Edward M. Kennedy to the U.S. Senate, where he would serve for over 45 years.
Incredibly, he would ask during the height of the Watergate scandal, "Do we operate under a system of equal justice under law? Or is there one system for the average citizen and another for the high and mighty?" There was no trace of irony in his voice.
Incredibly, he would run for the presidency in 1980, challenging the incumbent Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. His campaign was tainted by Chappaquiddick, but moreso by his inability to answer succinctly answer a question posed by Roger Mudd on a television interview. The question: “Why do you want to be president?”
Incredibly, he would become one of the most powerful and influential members of the Senate, the elder statesmen of the Democratic Party, known to many as the “Lion of the Senate.”
A Roman Catholic, he divorced his wife and remarried outside the Church. He differed with the Church’s teachings in fundamental issues such as the right to abortion, which he repeatedly voted to protect. He continued to take Communion.
He struggled with brain cancer for several years. He was unable to attend the funeral of his sister Eunice a few weeks ago. He continued as the senior Senator from Massachusetts until his death last night at age 77.
In the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Hitch-Hiker,” Inger Stevens stars as Nan Adams, a young woman on a cross-country trip who, after barely avoiding an auto accident, starts to encounter a hitchhiker who keeps showing up at the side of the road, no matter how far along on her trip she may be. At first she rationalizes it, figuring he’d gotten ahead of her by hitching a ride with a faster car. Later, she becomes hysterical, doing everything she can to escape the hitchhiker and his haunting appearance. When she calls home, she is told that her mother cannot come to the phone - she is mourning the death of her daughter, Nan. Finally, she comes to terms with the inevitable: she hadn’t avoided the auto accident after all; it had killed her, and the hitchhiker is in reality death come to claim her.
We don’t know if Edward M. Kennedy continued to see the face of Mary Jo Kopechne after leaving that car on July 19, 1969; we don’t know how many times in the subsequent years her visage appeared to him along the side of the road, on the Senate floor, in a bar or restaurant, or in the mirror of his bathroom. These are things we can never know. We only know this: that after all the years of swimming and driving and running, the hitchhiker has caught up with him at last.