She died slowly, gasping for the last pocket of air in the automobile sinking into the waters off Chappaquiddick Island. Mary Jo Kopechne, veteran of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, twenty-eight years old and devoted to the Kennedy family, had left her purse behind and simply climbed into the car with Senator Ted Kennedy. Now she was drowning in tidal Poucha Pond, and he was nowhere to be seen.
Ten hours after the accident, dry and fully dressed, Kennedy walked into the police station in nearby Edgartown, Massachusetts. Kennedy, the only surviving brother in the legendary political clan, after Bobby Kennedy was killed in 1968 and President Jack Kennedy assassinated in 1963, was widely rumored as a contender for his party’s nomination in the 1972 presidential election. He told the police chief that he had been driving the car when it went off the bridge. Somehow, Kennedy’s story goes, after he drove into the pond, he got out of the sinking car and surfaced above the rushing water.
He was next seen at the nearby rental cottage where his group of five married men and six women had been partying. After emerging from the pond, he said, he walked back to the party to get his pals there to help. Along the way, he passed several houses, indicating the presence of people who could have helped. But he did not stop.
It was July 1969. Years later, the screenwriters of a documentary about the incident have Kennedy say, “I’m never going to be President.” In his end-of-life memoir, he acknowledged that reality.
But ten years later, Ted Kennedy thought he had finally been cleansed of Chappaquiddick. After he’d pled guilty to leaving the scene, an inquest had concluded with no new charges. Twice reelected by his adoring Massachusetts constituents, surrounded by supportive Senate colleagues, Kennedy decided that the 1980 election was now or never: the Democrat in the White House, Jimmy Carter, was at an unprecedented low approval rating. Polls showed Kennedy could take him in a primary and likely beat Republican front-runner Ronald Reagan in the general. Carter’s self-righteous demeanor in the face of inflation and a stagnating economy had rendered him virtually unelectable against the Republicans. Once again, a Kennedy would save the party. Chappaquiddick? The tenth anniversary passed in July of 1979 with nary a murmur.
So television anchorman Roger Mudd seemingly caught the candidate by surprise with his question in the first interview of the 1979 campaign. The judge who presided over the hearing said he believed you lied about Chappaquiddick, Mudd began. Will anyone ever fully believe your explanation? Kennedy responded with a long string of utterly incoherent verbiage: “The problem is, from that night, I, I found the conduct, the behavior almost beyond belief myself. I mean that’s why it’s been, but I think that’s the way it was,” he rambled. “But that happens to be the way it was,” he finally concluded. And then, interview over, he waited. After all, the media had blithely ignored Kennedy’s brother, the martyred President John F. Kennedy, sneaking himself and his various bedmates in and out of the White House, and his other brother, the martyred presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, stirring the sex pots with Marilyn Monroe before she died in scandalous circumstances, in that case a notorious suicide.
Not this time. From the moment Ted Kennedy set foot in the state of Iowa in 1979, it was clear that Iowa women—schoolteachers, plant workers—had not forgotten Chappaquiddick. Had voters been so inclined, reporters, from Tom Wicker of the New York Times to Jimmy Breslan of the New York Daily News, were ready to remind them of Kennedy’s inadequate repentance. How about “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned”? Breslin suggested, for starters. Unlike Jimmy Carter, liberal Ted Kennedy was publicly feminist. He supported Medicaid payments for abortions and the feminists’ dream, a constitutional Equal Rights Amendment, still awaiting ratification by a few more states. But in the private world, there were no women in any serious positions on his staff. His reputation as a “known womanizer” gave the head of the National Women’s Political Caucus, Iris Mitgang, “reason for pause,” and female political reporter Suzannah Lessard “the creeps.” Kennedy lost Iowa 59 percent to 31 percent; a few months later support for his candidacy collapsed in the Catholic precincts of Chicago. With all the pausing and the remembering, the Chappaquiddick survivor and philandering women’s-policy ally Ted Kennedy lost the primary to the upright Jimmy Carter. You might call it a #MeToo moment.
But it was a #MeToo moment with a big cost to women’s other interests. In November the sexually virtuous Carter lost in a landslide to conservative Republican Ronald Reagan.