Chappaquiddick rates as most successful cover-up

Crowds watch as U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy’s car is pulled from the water in July 1969 at the Dyke Bridge in Edgartown, Mass. It’s been 50 years since the fateful automobile accident that killed a woman and thwarted Kennedy’s presidential aspirations. Associated Press file photo

Millions of words will be spoken and written this week about the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the mission that first put astronauts on the moon.

For all the attention this breakthrough in space travel will receive, it wasn’t even the most significant story of the week it occurred.

Chappaquiddick was. It happened on July 18, 1969 — two days before the moon landing — and it reshaped American history.

Chappaquiddick also is the most successful cover-up in U.S. politics. Its key figure, the last brother in a dynasty, never faced tough-minded investigators.

U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., didn’t report a fatal car wreck on Chappaquiddick Island, Martha’s Vineyard, for nine hours.

Kennedy’s account was that he lost control of his Oldsmobile sedan while driving over a narrow bridge. His car plunged into a pond and overturned in swirling waters.

His memory dimmed about what happened next. He told of somehow escaping from the submerged car.

Once he’d extricated himself, the married senator said he tried repeatedly to rescue his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne.

He failed. By then, Kennedy would have been exhausted and terrified.

Yet he didn’t knock on doors of homes near the bridge to call for help. With precious minutes ticking by, he said he made his way back to a cottage, site of a gathering where Kennedy, Kopechne and several other men and women had spent the evening eating and drinking.

In that era, the six women guests were known as the Boiler Room Girls. They had worked on the presidential campaign of Kennedy’s brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated 13 months earlier.

Back at the cottage, Kennedy didn’t alert police that he had been in a car crash, and that the woman he was driving to a ferry was still in the submerged sedan.

Instead, he confided in two friends — one the former U.S. attorney of Massachusetts, the other a cousin of Kennedy. They accompanied him to the pond.

All three would say they began a new series of attempts to reach Kopechne, none successful. Still, after all of this, no one called police.

Even stranger, Kennedy said he jumped back in the water and swam to Martha’s Vineyard. He had a hotel room there.

Next morning, those who saw Kennedy described the senator as looking uninjured and unconcerned. He did not resemble someone who had survived a terrible crash and then carried on rescue efforts.

Kennedy finally went to police at 10 a.m. July 19. His car had been spotted in the water. Kopechne’s body was recovered from the back seat.

The senator himself phoned her parents to break the news.

A sheriff’s deputy, Huck Look Jr., would give damaging but inconsistent testimony against Kennedy. The substance of Look’s story was that he saw Kennedy’s car on a road nearly 90 minutes after the senator said it had flipped over the bridge.

This cast doubt on Kennedy’s account. It also fueled speculation.

Was the senator drunk, explaining his failure to report the crash in timely fashion?

Was he panicked, wondering if Look had seen him late at night with a young woman? Did Kennedy tell Kopechne to drive off alone?

She was 5 feet, 2 inches tall, unfamiliar with driving a big sedan. Those who knew the island well, as Kennedy did, would not have been likely to veer from a paved road onto the dirt one with the narrow bridge.

No autopsy was done on Kopechne’s body. Secrecy enveloped the legal proceeding against Kennedy, though the charge against him was a relatively minor one.

He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident causing personal injury. The judge placed him on probation for two months and took away Kennedy’s driver’s license for a year.

His greater punishment came outside the courtroom. His hope of becoming president dissolved, but he made a desperate try in 1980.

With the White House out of reach, Kennedy remained in the Senate for another 40 years after Chappaquiddick. Admirers called him the chamber’s liberal lion.

He looked meek, though, in questioning then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas about sexual harassment allegations. The stain of Chappaquiddick left Kennedy open to attack.

Watergate became a bigger scandal than Chappaquiddick. After all, Richard Nixon was president and Kennedy a mere senator.

There is another important difference.

We know all about Watergate because Nixon’s cover-up having failed.

Exactly what happened on the bridge at Chappaquiddick remains subject to conjecture. Kennedy and his protectors made sure the whole truth never seeped out.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.