Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s legacy was blighted on the night of July 18, 1969, when he drove his car off a bridge and into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island, on Martha’s Vineyard. Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old worker with Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign, was found dead in the submerged car’s back seat 10 hours later.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s legacy was blighted on the night of July 18, 1969, when he drove his car off a bridge and into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island on Martha’s Vineyard. Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old worker with brother Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign, was found dead in the submerged car’s back seat 10 hours later.
In a statement to the police, Kennedy said when the accident occurred he was driving Kopechne to a ferry after a party on Chappaquiddick Island, on the east end of Martha’s Vineyard. He said he was unfamiliar with the road.
What might have been simply a tragic accident became an international furor as holes in Kennedy's story began to emerge. Kennedy was charged the next day, but the next day’s report reflected the rumors that the incident could harm Kennedy’s career.
Kennedy, then 37, ultimately pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended sentence and a year’s probation.
A judge eventually determined there was “probable cause to believe that Kennedy operated his motor vehicle negligently ... and that such operation appears to have contributed to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.”
At the height of the scandal, Kennedy appeared on national television to explain himself in an extraordinary 13-minute address in which he denied driving drunk and rejected rumors of “immoral conduct” with Kopechne. He said he was haunted by “irrational” thoughts immediately after the accident, and wondered “whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys.”
He said his failure to report the accident right away was “indefensible.”
After Chappaquiddick especially, Kennedy gained a reputation as a heavy drinker and a womanizer, a tragically flawed figure haunted by the fear that he did not quite measure up to his brothers. As his weight ballooned, he was lampooned by comics and cartoonists in the 1980s and ’90s as the very embodiment of government waste, bloat and decadence.
But in his later years, after he had remarried, he came to be regarded as a statesman on Capitol Hill, seen as one of the most effective, hardworking lawmakers Washington has ever seen.
Wildly popular among Democrats, Kennedy routinely won re-election by large margins. He grew comfortable in his role as Republican foil and leader of his party’s liberal wing.
The Patriot Ledger