Edward Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick Incident

Term Paper, 2017

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Definition of “political scandal”

3. Biography of Edward Kennedy

4. The Chappaquiddick Incident

5. Analysis of Edward Kennedy´s speech on television after the Chappaquiddick Incident

6. The consequences of the Chappaquiddick Incident for Kennedy's further career as a politician

7. Conclusion

8. Works Cited

1. Introduction

I was afraid. I was overwhelmed. I made terrible decisions. Even though I was dazed from my concussion, exhaustion, shock, and panic, I was rational enough to understand that the accident would be devastating to my family [...] and that it would be damaging my political career as well. (Kennedy 2011, p. 291)

This quote appears in Edward Kennedy´s memoirs and shows his reaction to the so-called Chappaquiddick Incident, in which his driving caused the death of his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne in a car accident. The Chappaquiddick Incident was a spectacular political scandal in 1969 that attracted heavy media attention. To this day, it remains a subject of speculation in the press. Due to an upcoming movie, called Chappaquiddick, in April 2018 and the recently released trailer about the Chappaquiddick Incident there is currently a heightened media interest about the scandal.

In this paper, I want to analyze how a political scandal affects the career of a politician by using the example of Edward Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick Incident as a case study. First I define the term “political scandal”. In my second section, I give an overview of Edward Kennedy´s life. Next, I describe the events of his political scandal, the Chappaquidick Incident. Finally, I want to show the consequences of the Chappaquiddick Incident for Kennedy´s further career as a politician.

2. Definition of “political scandal”

The term “scandal” is derived from the Latin term “scandalum” which means “an action or event seen as wrong or unacceptable and causing general outrage” (Waite 2012, p. 646). In this context, wrong or unacceptable means a morally wrong behaviour. A scandal is called a political scandal when the main character of the scandal is a political figure (Thompson 2000, p. 91). Political scandals occur frequently and are an ever-present part of the modern political landscape (Ekström and Johansson 2011, p. 61). There are different types of political scandals: for instance, talk scandals, power scandals, sex scandals and financial scandals (Thompson 2000, p. 122), to name just a few. In contrast to Thompson, other political scientists like Andrej Markovits and Mark Silverstein claim that a classic sex scandal involving a political figure is not a political scandal, provided that it does not “involve a determinate abuse of power at the expense of process and procedure” (Markovits and Silverstein 1988, p. 6).

A scandal has far-reaching consequences for the affected politician: it damages the reputation and causes distrust of the politician that may extend to the politician’s whole party. It is difficult to generalize about the consequences of a political scandal; they vary widely on a case-by-case basis and depend on the severity of the scandal. In some cases politicians may be fired or pressured to resign, in other cases they may survive the scandal nearly unscathed or might even stage a political comeback after some time passed by (Encyclopedia 2018).

To sum it up, a political scandal is a morally unacceptable action of a political figure which involves an abuse of power and causes general outrage and far-reaching consequences for the affected politician.

Other prominent examples for United States political scandals beside the Chappaquiddick Incident are for instance the Watergate Scandal under the presidency of Richard Nixon from 1972–1973, the Iran-Contra affair from 1985–1987 and the sex scandal of president Bill Clinton and the White House intern Monica Lewinsky in the 1990es (Mayer 2016).

3. Biography of Edward Kennedy

As Edward Kennedy is the main figure of the fateful Chappaquiddick Incident I first want to present a short overview over his life and political career.

Edward Moore Kennedy, better known as Ted Kennedy, was a trained lawyer and a prominent American politician. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 22, 1932 as the youngest of nine children of Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph P. Kennedy (Clymer 1999, p. 9). Ted Kennedy came from a very privileged background, as his father was a millionaire businessman (Biography 2014). Over the years, the family - and especially the three Kennedy brothers John, Robert and Edward - developed into a leading political dynasty. But it was not only glitter and glamour that determined the Kennedy´s life. They also had to suffer tragedies as several heavy blows of fate stuck them. Concerning this matter, I want to point out the so called “Kennedy Curse” more detailed in my fifth point. Ted was married to Joan Bennet Kennedy from 1958 to 1982 with whom he had three children (Clymer 1999, 23f). In 1992 he married his second wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy (Clymer 1999, p. 511f).

As a member of the Democratic Party, Kennedy served as an U.S. Senator for 47 years from 1962 until his death in 2009 (Clymer 1999, p. 9), making him the second longest-serving senator in the history of the United States (TedKennedy 2018). Due to his long tenure and leadership in several legislative actions to improve the civil rights, the health system, and the economic well-being of American citizens (TedKennedy 2018), as well as his successful work across party lines, Kennedy was also known affectionately as the “Lion of the Senate” (Biography 2014). Many Americans saw him as his older brothers heir but his reputation and career suffered a huge blow in 1969 by the so called Chappaquiddick Incident, which I want to discuss in my next point, that effectively hindered Kenned´s presidential ambitions. In the 1980 election, his only attempt to become president resulted in a loss when he unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination in 1979 against office holder Jimmy Carter who was later defeated in the general election by his Republican opponent Ronald Reagan (History 2010). Ted Kennedy died on August 25, 2009 after suffering from brain cancer (Biography 2014).

4. The Chappaquiddick Incident

Any discussion of Edward Kennedy and notions of a political scandal inevitably leads to the case of the Chappaquiddick Incident.

On July 18, 1969, Edward Kennedy caused a car accident on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. As a result of the accident, Kennedy´s passenger Mary Jo Kopechne died, whereas Kennedy remained uninjured (Klein 2009, p. 81).

During the days leading up to the incident, he was on Martha´s Vineyard, a larger island next to Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, taking part in the Edgartown Regatta. On the evening of July 18, a reunion with some women who had worked for his older brother Robert Kennedy as a legislative aid during his presidential campaign (Clymer 1999, p. 144ff) took place at a rented cottage on Chappaquiddick Island (Klein 2009, p. 84). According to the neighbours of the cottage, it was a wild and loud party (Clymer 1999, p. 144). One of the invited women was the 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne (Figure 2). She had a degree in business administration and was said to be very diligent and passionate in her job (Klein 2009, p. 82). At the time of the accident, Kopechne was working for Matt Reese and Associates, a renowned political consulting firm (Clymer 1999, p. 145).

As Kennedy explained in his memoirs, the night of the accident, he and Kopechne talked about his dead brother Robert. The conversation was very emotional for him which prompted him to leave the party earlier. Kennedy wrote that he was only glad to have an excuse to leave when Kopechne told him that she also wants to go home. Kennedy asked his driver for the keys of the car, as he wished to drive himself and Mary Jo Kopechne back to their hotels in Edgartown around midnight (Kennedy 2011, p. 290). It remains an open question as to whether Kopechne wanted to return to the party later on or wanted to spend the night with Kennedy because she did not asked a friend with whom she shared her hotel room, Esther Newberg, for the key to their hotel room (Klein 2009, p. 86). Ted Kennedy was known to be a poor driver (Klein 2009, p. 87) and the statements of the other guests of the party concerning the amount of alcohol he had consumed were quite contradictory (Klein 2009, p. 85). Kennedy stated in a television speech on July 25, 1969, that he was not “under the influence of liquor” at time of the accident (Public Apology Central 2011). In contrast to this statement, he testified at the inquest in January, that he had two drinks (Clymer 1999, p. 144).

In the television statement, which I will analyze in greater depth in my next section, Ted Kennedy explained that he was driving on Main Street of Chappaquiddick Island in order to get the ferry back to Edgartown. He stated that he was unfamiliar with the road and because of this took a wrong turn on Dike Road (Clymer 1999, p. 147). Kennedy was driving “on an unlit road” when, about half-mile away from the cottage (Bly 1996, p. 177) his car “went off a narrow bridge which had no guard rails and was built on a left angle to the road” (Public Apology Central 2011). He continued, explaining that “the car overturned in a deep pond and immediately filled with water” (Public Apology Central 2011). A photo of the bridge, called Dike Bridge, an the submerged car can be seen in figure 3.

Whereas Kennedy managed to escape of the window of the sinking car, Kopechne was not able to get out of it and eventually drowned in the most-submerged car. He claimed he tried to rescue her by diving again and again under the water without any success (Bly 1996, p. 179). He then returned to the cottage where the party took place to get help and rushed back to the bridge accompanied by two other men, who again tried unsuccessfully to rescue Kopechne. Instead of informing the police and the relatives of Kopechne immediately after the accident, Kennedy went to his hotel by foot and by swimming across the Martha´s Vineyard Channel and went to bed (Clymer 1999, p. 145).

From the first moment of his return to the cottage, Kennedy assumed responsibility for the accident and the resulting death of Kopechne (Kennedy 2011, p. 288). Kennedy himself judged his actions harshly during the hours after the accident, calling his behaviour “inexcusable” (Kennedy 2011, p. 291). According to his own reports, he suffered from shock and a cerebral concussion as a consequence of the accident (Public Apology Central 2011). A cerebral concussion can cause memory failure and confusion, which would be one possible explanation for Kennedy´s erratic behaviour after the accident (Klein 2009, p. 145).

In January 1970, the inquest was held in Edgartown. The judge had doubts about Kennedy’s statement that he and Kopechne had wanted to return to their hotels in Edgartown and stated that Kennedy´s driving style was “negligent” which “contributed to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne”. Nevertheless, Kennedy received a mild penalty in the form of “the temporary loss of his driver´s license and a two months suspended sentence” (Klein 2009, p. 99f).

Many open questions remain, yet there are only a few proven facts about the Chappaquiddick Incident. It is more than questionable that Kennedy´s erratic behaviour after the accident was only due the cerebral concussion as he claimed in his testimony. Detractors claim that from the first moment, Kennedy was principally occupied with rescuing his career instead of Kopechne’s life, and that he used his prominent name to escape from harsh penalties (a two months suspended sentence is an unusually mild penalty for such an accident). Kennedy´s behaviour after the accident was widely regarded as a cover-up. The main question concerns why he went to bed instead of informing the police and the relatives of Kopechne immediately after the accident. One possible explanation could be that he was, contrary to his claims, under the influence of alcohol while driving the car and wanted to avoid an alcohol test. By avoiding the test, he could present the incident as an accident and receive only a mild penalty. Another unanswered question concerns why the two men who helped Kennedy trying to rescue Kopechne also did not call the police. One more possible explanation for Kennedy´s erratic behaviour could be that Mary Jo Kopechne was not only a former employee of the Kennedys, but also one of his affairs. This would also explain the fact why she left the party with Kennedy but without the key for her hotel room. The fact that Kennedy had the reputation to love to play around with young, pretty women like Kopechne (Clymer 1999, p. 145) supports this assumption.

5. Analysis of Edward Kennedy´s speech on television after the Chappaquiddick Incident

In a speech on television one week after the accident on July 25, 1969, Ted Kennedy addressed to the people of Massachusetts on Chappaquiddick and offered an explanation for Mary Jo Kopechne's death. He likely intended to give the speech as soon as possible to combat wild speculation in the media. Additionally, the speech presented an opportunity to portray himself in the right light with the help of thoughtful formulations and an apologetic, pathetic but partly also defensive tone throughout the speech. With a carefully prepared speech by his lawyers and political advisers and a skilful word choice, Kennedy tried to cover up any wrongdoing in order to allay his voters anger and to protect his political career. Kennedy tried to portray himself in a more flattering light and presented himself as a real gentleman, for instance by saying that Kopechne was like a family member to him after his brother Robert’s death: “all of us tried to help her feel that she still had a home with the Kennedy family” (Public Apology Central 2011). Moreover, he presented himself with dramatic and pathetic words like a real hero in trying to rescue the life of Kopechne: “I made immediate and repeated efforts to save Mary Jo by diving into the strong and murky current, but succeeded only in increasing my state of utter exhaustion and alarm” (Public Apology Central 2011). According to the official police report, the water in the pond was only six feet deep at the place where the accident happened, so Kennedy, 6 feet 2 inches tall, was probably even able to put his feet on the ground (FBI Boston 1969). Furthermore, he tried to blame poor road conditions for the accident by explaining that he was driving “on an unlit road” and went of “a narrow bridge which had no guard rails and was built on the left angle of the road” (Public Apology Central 2011).


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Edward Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick Incident
University of Tubingen
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edward, kennedy, chappaquiddick
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Sophia Junger (Author), 2017, Edward Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick Incident, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/435189


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