The Lion in Water: Some Facts About ‘Chappaquiddick’

Way back in July 1969, reporter Leo Damore covered Senator Edward Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick caper for the Cape Cod News. As he showed in his masterful Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-Up, everything Kennedy said about the incident was a lie.

Ted Kennedy rode his brother John’s coattails to win a seat from Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate in 1962. The next year, JFK was assassinated and brother Bobby fell to shooter Sirhan Sirhan in 1968. That led to speculation that Ted might be a contender for president by a simple process of family succession. For the full story, read The Kennedys: An American Drama, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz.

In July 1969, Senator Kennedy came to Cape Cod for a regatta and stashed brother Bobby’s “boiler room girls,” in a cottage on Chappaquiddick Island. The film version of “Chappaquiddick” plays this covert hook-up like a ’60s beach flick with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello and viewers won’t spot a single navel. Ted (Jason Clarke) slips away from the drunken bash with the beautiful Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). Viewers don’t see what’s going on in the black Oldsmobile, but it is possible to guess.

Spooked by a cop, Kennedy roars away and promptly drives off a bridge into Poucha Pond. The senator somehow gets out and one of his first thoughts is “I am not going to be president.” The senator leaves Mary Jo in the car, where she dies, and does not report the accident until the next day.

As the film shows in great detail, Ted deploys squads of heel-clicking sycophants to control the press, the police, the hearing, the medical examination, and the handling of Mary Jo’s body. He gets off with a tap on the wrist. Family scribe Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) pens Kennedy’s explanatory television speech, which as another handler explains is “all bullshit.” At the funeral for Mary Jo, Joan Kennedy tells husband Ted, “go fuck yourself.” Viewers may agree, but this does not wrap the story.

“You will never be great,” family patriarch Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) tells Ted. As the film explains in text, Joe died four months later, and Ted went on to become the “lion” of the U.S. Senate. The takeaway is that the drunken control freak who left Mary Jo Kopechne to die did eventually become a great man. As Millennials should understand, even liberal Democrats of the time never thought Ted Kennedy was great.

In fact, it wasn’t even close.

There is hardly a personal tragedy in the husk that [Kennedy] has so patently become, because there never was enough of a nut inside it for even a squirrel to nibble on,” wrote Henry Fairlie in an October 18, 1987, New Republic piece headlined Hamalot: The Democratic Buffoon-in-Chief.” Fairlie found “little evidence that any wheels are turning inside his skull,” and “every image that the Democrats have to overcome—that they overtax the Middle Americans, try to meet social problems only with a proliferation of programs, are the junior partners of vociferous but marginal interest groups, look too carelessly at the credentials of the Third World movements and leaders, and neglect the security of the nation and of the free world—is kept alive by this buffoon.”

The buffoonish profile came through in the 1988 Saturday Night Live skit “Dukakis After Dark,” with Phil Hartman playing the beer-swigging Kennedy hitting on Kitty Dukakis. On the other hand, the ladies’ man did show a more serious side.

In 1984, Senator Kennedy sought help from the Soviet Union, then headed by the KGB’s Yuri Andropov, an old-line Stalinist. Kennedy offered to lend Andropov a hand in dealing with President Reagan. In return, the Soviet boss would lend the Democratic Party a hand in challenging Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. The gambit failed, and Reagan won in a landslide over both the Democrats’ Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro and Communist Party USA candidates Gus Hall and Angela Davis. Davis may now be seen in a pussy hat leading marches in Washington.

Senator Edward Kennedy’s collusion with Russian and American Communists would make a great movie but don’t look for it any time soon, if ever. Check out this headline from the July 6, 2017 People magazine: “A Kennedy Who Could Be President: Rep. Joe Kennedy on Potential Campaign and Un-Glamorous Hyannis Port Holidays.”

As Ted Kennedy explains in “Chappaquiddick,” it’s all about family.

Photo credit: Bettmann/Getty Images

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About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

Photo: (Original Caption) Edgartown, Mass.:Senator Edward M. Kennedy talks to newsmen after completeing testimony at the first day of inquest into July 18th death of Mary Jo Kopechne. Miss Kopechne died when Kennedy's car plunged from a Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., bridge into a tidal pool. The hearing is closed to the public. Kennedy told newsmen he hoped the hearing would be completed so he could return to his Senate duties. 1/5/1970