‘Happy’ Birthday, Chappaquiddick. You Just Turned 49.
In my 64 years, I’ve never seen what I regarded as an almost-perfect movie. But I just did. There is one thing — literally one word — missing from it. And if that can hold you in suspense until the very end of this short article, good.
You know about the facts behind Chappaquiddick: the incident that took place the night of July 18, 1969, at approximately 11:15 p.m., when Senator Ted Kennedy was driving Mary Jo Kopechne back to her hotel from the party they were at for the six “boiler room girls,” all unmarried, who had worked on Ted’s brother Robert’s ill-fated presidential campaign. Mary Jo was one of the “girls” (all under thirty). Six men, all married, including Ted, were also at the party.
Ted drove the car off a narrow bridge into shallow water. What happened then would capture the attention of America the next morning, almost displacing the Apollo 11 moon landing two days later.
Having escaped the submerged car, Ted attempted to rescue Mary Jo but couldn’t. You may think you know what happened next, but you don’t. So let me tell you. This is based on every known fact.
No Hanky Panky
But first, let me allay your suspicions. There has never been an iota of evidence of anything untoward between Kennedy and Mary Jo. Of course suspicions were raised as soon as the story broke. Nor was he drunk: Kennedy’s friends at the party swore that both he and Mary Jo appeared perfectly sober when they left. The film, honoring that truth, shows Ted just sipping a drink at the party, and, while driving to the bridge, clearly not drunk.
Kennedy walked back to the cottage where the party was and called one of the other men to get his cousin, Joseph Gargan. In the film, Gargan sees him dripping wet and staring out into space. “Come on, Teddy,” says Gargan. “What’s the big idea?”
I’m Not Going to Be President
“I’m not going to be president,” Kennedy says. It is an astonishing line, heavy with the weight of family obligation and the memory of his late brothers Joe, John and Robert. In the film, as he says this, Mary Jo is shown gasping in an air bubble, suffocating alone, saying the Our Father.
There was a problem, he tells Gargan: “The car has gone off the bridge down by the beach, and Mary Jo is in it.” Then he, Gargan, and a close friend, Paul Markham, drive back to the bridge. The two others disrobe and jump in.
“Moses had a temper, but he never left a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea.”
In the film, Ted is lying on his back as they try to rescue her, “My God, what have I done?” he asks. At that instant, he is staring up at the full moon. If that’s not some cosmic symbolism, I don’t know what is.
Abandoning the rescue attempts as futile, they drive back, with Kennedy sobbing, “This couldn’t have happened. I don’t know how it happened.” “Well, it did happen, and it has happened,” Markham says. Kennedy replies: “What am I going to do? What can I do?”
Sitting in the car, they talk ten minutes or so. Gargan urges Kennedy, “You have got to report this thing immediately.” “All right, all right, I will take care of it. You go back, don’t upset the girls, don’t get them involved; I will take care of it.”
A Suicide Attempt?
Though not shown as such in the film, Kennedy got out of the car, took a few paces to the shore, “impulsively” jumped into the harbor channel and began swimming. “Now,” he later testified under oath,
I started to swim out into that tide, and the tide suddenly became … I felt an extraordinary shove and almost pulling me down again, the water pulling me down, and suddenly I realized at that time even as I failed to realize before I dove into the water that I was in a weakened condition … the tide began to draw me out, and for the second time that evening I knew I was going to drown, and the strength continued to leave me.
By this time, I was probably fifty yards off the shore, and I remembered being swept down toward the direction of the Edgartown Lighthouse and well out into the dark … And some time after, I think it was about the middle of the channel, a little further than that, the tide was much calmer, gentler, and I began to get my … make some progress, and finally was able to reach the other shore.
Kennedy struggled toward his hotel, the Shiretown Inn, “leaning against a tree for a length of time” to recover his strength. Sometime before 2 a.m., he testified, he shed his wet clothes. Then he “collapsed onto the bed.” He “wasn’t sure whether it was morning or afternoon or nighttime.” So he put on dry clothes, went downstairs and asked an innkeeper what time it was. 2:25 a.m. Meanwhile, Gargan and Markham, according to their own sworn testimony, watched from the shore as Kennedy swam. They were satisfied that he was safe and would report the accident as promised. They returned to the cottage between 2:00 and 2:15 a.m. There they conveyed the impression that all was well. Gargan told some of Mary Jo’s friends that she had driven the car alone and was in her motel.
What’s Your Alibi?
In the film, however, Gargan tells the girls that Mary Jo is dead. A forgivable alteration, perhaps, one that may seem to make more sense than the truth.
But here, the film tells its only lie. It’s a whopper — and, incredibly, not mentioned by a single reviewer. Kennedy is shown back at his hotel, on a public phone outside. He makes a collect call from “Ted.” The operator instantly connects him, and, incredibly, his mother Rose picks up. “I want to speak to Dad.” His 81-year-old father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., who had suffered a stroke years earlier and would die later that year, is heard wheezing. Kennedy tells his father he has done something terrible that would threaten his career. His father wheezes out: “… Alibi …”
The next morning, whatever turmoil he had suffered the night before, Kennedy hid it well. Freshly groomed and dressed in white trousers, white loafers, and a blue polo shirt, he looked fit and untroubled as he strolled from the Shiretown Inn at 7:30 a.m.
About 8:30 a.m., Kennedy emerged in the lobby of the inn, ordered copies of The Boston Globe and The New York Times, and borrowed a dime from a clerk to make a phone call. Minutes later, Gargan and Markham found him chatting with someone on the porch, and went with him to his room, where Gargan asked, “What happened?” “I didn’t report it,” Kennedy replied.
Not seen in the film: the three men saw the wrecker roll by with the recovered car, and an operator shouted, “Hey, are you aware of the accident?” “Yes, we just heard about it,” Markham replied calmly.
Now there was no choice. Kennedy had to go to the police. He said to Gargan and Markham: “Look, I don’t want you people put in the middle on this thing. I’m not going to involve you. As far as you know, you didn’t know anything about the accident that night.”
“Cut” now, as they say in film lingo, all the way to Friday night, a week later, July 25th. Kennedy is about to address the nation in a live televised speech.
A Profile in B.S.
Here, once again, the filmmakers take an astounding liberty, perhaps worse than the last. Just as Kennedy is about to go live, Gargan tries to convince him to use a resignation letter he has written for Kennedy, declaring the one written by Kennedy hagiographer Ted Sorenson (real author of JFK’s Pulitzer-winning Profiles in Courage) to be “bulls**t,” every line. Kennedy demurs.
“Joey,” he says, “you have flaws. We all do. You said so yourself. Moses had a temper. Peter betrayed Jesus. I have Chappaquiddick.”
“Yeah,” answers Gargan, “Moses had a temper, but he never left a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea.”
The line is undeniably dramatic. But it is also profoundly cynical.
The next morning, in the film, we see actual archival interviews from the day after the speech: “Would you vote for him again?” asks a reporter of one young woman. “I certainly would. Definitely.” Another reporter asks another young woman if she would vote for Kennedy as president. She, too, answers yes.
Then we see an image of an old man, just his eyes and whitened eyebrows. The aged Kennedy, we wonder? We’ll never know.
Then, a voice-over. It is Kennedy delivering a speech, perhaps from his presidential campaign in 1980 — again archival, his actual voice: “The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.” And the crowd cheers, “Ted! … Ted! … Ted!”
Then we see the bridge. And that is all we see, before the credits roll. We read that “the people of Massachusetts voted overwhelmingly to re-elect Kennedy to the Senate, where he became known as the Lion of the Senate and became the fourth-longest-serving senator in U.S. history.”
What we are not told is this: Two years after Chappaquiddick, in 1971, Kennedy sent a letter to a concerned constituent on a certain subject, claiming to hold the opposite view of what the man suspected. Two years after that, in 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe vs. Wade, Kennedy instantly reversed himself on what he had told the man — shedding his pro-life rhetoric and declaring himself a staunch champion of the most satanic “cause” in human history.