Must-See TV: Scandalous: Chappaquiddick Premieres Tonight

Highly recommended is a new program on the Fox News channel tonight, Sunday, December 2 from 8-9 P.M. E.T./P.T.  It's the second season premiere of the occasional documentary series Scandalous.  Season two, episode one of Scandalous: Chappaquiddick, "The Bridge," will be shown this evening, with three more hour-long episodes to follow on successive Sunday evenings in December.  The subject of the four new in-depth programs is the 1969 scandal involving the late Sen. Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy (D-Mass.) that essentially short-circuited his seemingly inevitable path to the presidency.  Not well remembered now, the scandal a half-century ago was also depicted in a dramatic feature film, titled Chappaquiddick, that premiered in theaters last April and bombed at the box office (only $18 million in ticket sales versus a $34-million budget).

Fox News Channel graphic for Scandalous: Chappaquiddick.

The story of Kennedy's actions resulting in the death of 28-year-old campaign aide Mary Jo Kopechne more than merits the new, detailed look that Scandalous: Chappaquiddick promises to give it.  Last winter, season one of Scandalous presented seven hour-long episodes about the scandals of Bill and Hillary Clinton leading up to the 42nd president's impeachment by the House of Representatives and trial in the Senate in 1999.  It was a serious, hard-hitting, compelling, and mostly objective production featuring 45 new interviews with many of the principals and journalists who covered the events, a wealth of archival video, and excellent narration by Bruce McGill.  The first season of Scandalous performed well in the ratings.

The story of Chappaquiddick seems like a logical follow-up to the Clinton scandals.  As a news release emailed to journalists by Fox News on November 28 noted:

This second season will spotlight the personal tragedy and political drama that enveloped the United States in the summer of 1969, turning the island of "Chappaquiddick" into a household name.  The program will chronicle the perspective of many of those involved, along with the journalists who  covered the puzzling accident that left the political career of the late Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy tarnished and led to the death of campaign strategist Mary Jo Kopechne.  Through archival footage, records and never-before seen photos, the series will revisit the daily twists and turns of the drama that first captivated the world nearly 50 years ago.

In the early 1970s, I made the first of many trips to Martha's Vineyard, when the Chappaquiddick story was still fresh in the minds of local residents, even though the rest of the country had largely moved on.  Most of the Vineyarders whom I spoke with over 45 years ago were of the opinion that Kennedy had gotten away with murder.

The Background

Late on the evening of Friday, July 18, 1969, a party at a small rented cottage on the remote, rural island of Chappaquiddick, separated by a churning 500-foot wide body of water from the main island of Martha's Vineyard, was winding down.  The partygoers were six single women in their twenties who had worked for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), who had been assassinated the year before; six older men, including Ted Kennedy; and several male Democratic campaign strategists.

Around midnight, Kennedy left the party with Kopechne, who, he said later, wanted a ride back to her hotel in Edgartown on the Vineyard.  But Kopechne left her hotel key and purse behind at the cottage.  The other attendees at the party were planning on spending the rest of the night at the rented cottage.

Supposedly taking a wrong turn from the two-lane paved road on the way to the ferry, Kennedy wound up heading in the opposition direction along a one-lane dirt road toward an isolated beach.  Approaching the beach, the Oldsmobile sedan Kennedy was driving veered off the small Dyke Bridge and became submerged in the Poucha Pond below.  Kennedy escaped and said later that he repeatedly dove into the water in search of Kopechne, who remained trapped inside the vehicle.  Inexplicably, after giving up, Kennedy did not report the accident, but instead walked back to the cottage, where he conferred privately with several of his closest aides, who also failed to report the accident.

Small three-car capacity ferry running from Martha's Vineyard toward Chappaquiddick Island on May 12, 2004.  This is the body of water that Kennedy swam in the early morning hours of July 19, 1969 to get back to his hotel after the accident at Dyke Bridge.  Photograph © by Peter Barry Chowka.

Without informing the other partygoers about what had just happened, the aides drove Kennedy back to the accident scene, where they said they made additional unsuccessful attempts to locate and free Kopechne from the still submerged car.  They then drove Kennedy to the deserted and now closed Chappaquiddick ferry landing, and he wound up swimming across the channel back to the Vineyard and spent the rest of the night at his hotel.  The next morning, after making a series of calls from pay phones to confer with some of his top political advisers or fixers around the country, Kennedy finally reported the accident to police.  By the time rescuers reached the car, Kopechne had expired – but not from drowning. 

According to People magazine (December 29, 2017):

"I know she suffocated when her oxygen ran out," the diver [who removed Kopechne's body from Kennedy's car], John Farrar, said in Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-up, a 1988 book about the incident by Leo Damore.  "She didn’t drown."

Farrar claimed that Kopechne could have been alive for some time after the accident and alleges that she could have been saved if Ted had summoned the police earlier.  "She could have lived a good while after the car went off the bridge," Farrar said in Senatorial Privilege.

The district attorney's request for a belated autopsy was opposed by Ted's camp and by Kopechne's parents at the time.  It was rejected by a Pennsylvania judge following a hearing.

A Slap on the Wrist

The subsequent legal proceedings and a variety of journalistic accounts over the years also suggested that if the accident had been reported in a timely manner, Kopechne might have survived.  Incredibly, Kennedy was not charged criminally with vehicular manslaughter; instead, he was given a slap on the wrist – allowed to plead guilty to leaving the scene of an accident causing personal injury, a misdemeanor for which he received a two-month suspended jail sentence and had his driver's license suspended for six months.

This account is a bare-bones summary of an outrageous and tragic event and its aftermath that were essentially wrapped (or covered) up in little more than one week.  Meanwhile, the country was preoccupied with and distracted by the breaking news about the first successful landing of two American astronauts on the Moon that was occurring at the same time.  The questions that the Chappaquiddick incident raised about Kennedy's character and behavior that night in July 1969, however, dogged him for the rest of his life.  The incident further embellished his reputation as an out-of-control womanizer, and he was unsuccessful in his only serious try at the presidency, when he challenged incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party's nomination in 1980.

Sen. Ted Kennedy at a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. George McGovern, Newark, N.J., Oct. 31, 1972.  Photograph © by Peter Barry Chowka.

Although he never made it to the Oval Office, Kennedy's career in the U.S. Senate lasted for over 40 more years until the day he died from a brain tumor in 2009.  Over time, the details of the 1969 incident at Chappaquiddick largely faded, and Kennedy – in life and after his death – was lauded by Democrats and Republicans alike, constantly celebrated and honored as the "Lion of the Senate."  Hopefully, Scandalous: Chappaquiddick's new four-hour-long deconstruction of the events almost a half-century ago will add some much needed clarity to the hagiographic, airbrushed revision of the real history that has dominated political discourse ever since.

Correction: No autopsy was performed.

Peter Barry Chowka writes about politics, media, popular culture, and health care for American Thinker and other publications.  Follow him on Twitter at @pchowka.

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