As the 50th anniversary of Chappaquiddick rolls around, nothing sums up the sheer viciousness of the Kennedy Mafia like the following quote from Melody Miller, one of Ted Kennedy’s longest-serving aides throughout his time in the US Senate representing Massachusetts.
Speaking at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in 2008, a full 39 years after Mary Jo Kopechne’s young life was snuffed out on July 18, 1969, Miller was still filled with enough personal venom to say this about the inconvenient death that kept her man from becoming president:
“The photograph that is out there from [Kopechne’s] yearbook is exceptionally lovely, and I’m sure a treasure for her parents. I wouldn’t want to say anything denigrating about that, but it gave off an inaccurate impression of what she really looked like. She did not have straight teeth; she did not have very good skin; she had straight, sometimes stringy, blonde hair. She was not a glamour queen as that picture may have suggested, but she was a wonderfully competent, nice gal whom we all really liked, but she was not somebody who men hit on at all.
“When people made the suggestion that the senator and she were going off to the beach, and that’s why he turned right, for a tryst, the Robert Kennedy staff women all looked at each other and laughed. We laughed because we knew that was absurd.”
Nothing tawdry was going on because Mary Jo was too ugly for a Kennedy? Nice. Miller has loyally served the Kennedy family for more than 50 years. Her stinging callousness here hints that she did not refrain from getting her hands dirty while working damage control for Senator Sloppy many a time in the past.
Crying for Himself
There is no reason to rehash the many highly inappropriate decisions Ted Kennedy made 50 years ago as Kopechne lay submerged in his Oldsmobile after it careened off Dyke Bridge. The story has been well documented. It has been strongly argued that the young girl slowly suffocated to death, instead of drowning, and could have been saved if help had arrived in time. But there is another enduring myth that Kennedy backers have striven to weave about their wayward Camelot knight. We are supposed to believe that he was “haunted” all his life by the death of Kopechne.
To hear from those who knew him, If Ted felt any personal agony over Chappaquiddick, it was wrapped entirely around his own political ambitions. Kopechne, 28, was a former member of the Boiler Room Girls, a group of young females who worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. The party at Chappaquiddick was meant to be a reunion of sorts for RFK staffers. Another Boiler Room Girl and former roommate of Mary Jo, Nance Lyons, told the Kennedy Institute in 2008 of her deep bitterness over Ted’s lack of regard for these young women and the personal attacks they endured for years after Chappaquiddick.
“For the next ten to twelve years on each anniversary, we were pursued by the press, subjected to hate mail, and demeaning descriptions of our work and those veiled accusations about our moral rectitude,” Lyons related. “Even though I returned to work within ten feet of his office, [Ted] never, never, never asked how I was doing; or said how sorry he was that I and the other women were subjected to such scrutiny …. He never mentioned Mary Jo to me. No call during each year’s anniversary scrutiny. No thank you for supporting him during these ‘trying’ times. To me this was unbelievable and I have not forgiven him for that insensitivity.”
Post-Death Political Theater
Make no mistake, there was one victim of Chappaquiddick in Ted’s mind, and that was him. Former John F. Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen, widely credited with being the real author of the book Profiles in Courage that earned JFK a Pulitzer Prize, told the Kennedy Institute that he believed Ted was eager to portray himself as such in the immediate wake of the incident. “He was wearing — if I may say so — quite ostentatiously, a huge bandage around his head, possibly because he needed it and his doctors insisted on it, but possibly to gain some sympathy and remind people that he had been a victim in that crash also,” Sorensen noted in a 2006 interview of seeing Ted shortly after the accident. Kennedy famously donned an imposing neck brace for Kopechne’s funeral, an act that drew much derision.
One week after Kopechne’s death, on July 25, Kennedy delivered a televised address to the people of Massachusetts that set new levels for shamelessness with its self-serving posture. “I made immediate and repeated efforts to save Mary Jo by diving into the strong and murky current, but succeeded only in increasing my state of utter exhaustion and alarm,” he said. “My conduct and conversations during the next several hours, to the extent that I can remember them, make no sense to me at all.”
At the end of the speech, Kennedy appeared to leave it up to the citizens of Massachusetts to decide whether or not he would resign. Donning a mask of deliberative anguish, he asked his constituents to “think this through with me,” before humbly adding, “I pray that I can have the courage to make the right decision.”
But according to another of his closest staffers, there was never a decision to be made. Kennedy fully believed he was going to get away with it. Carey Parker served as Ted’s chief legislative assistant for years. In a 2008 interview with the Kennedy Institute, she said, “it wasn’t as though he ever seriously thought, ‘I can’t go back to the Senate. How can I still be a senator? Do I have to resign?’ I don’t think that entered his mind in any significant way.”
After Mary Jo’s demise, Kennedy backers and a wholly complicit establishment media advanced a dominant narrative that concluded Ted had suffered enough by taking such a serious hit to his presidential chances. The judge who sentenced him to, well, nothing really, for leaving the scene of the deadly accident said as much as early as February 1970 after a two-day inquest absolved Kennedy of any and all serious legal consequences.
“He has already been and will continue to be punished far beyond anything this court can impose — the ends of justice would be satisfied by the imposition of the minimum jail sentence and the suspension of that sentence, assuming the defendant accepts the suspension,” Judge James Boyle stated in his ruling. Good luck getting the same consideration under similar circumstances if your last name isn’t Kennedy. Leaving the scene of an accident that causes death is a crime punishable in Massachusetts today by a sentence of up to ten years in state prison.
Former Boston Globe White House correspondent Martin Nolan neatly captured the media framing that so aided Kennedy with his wistful musings on the matter. “If he had never been to Chappaquiddick … I mean, his chances for the presidency ended in 1969,” Nolan warbled in his own reflective interview with the Kennedy Institute. “Some people say he got away with it. Well, he didn’t get away with it because it ruined his presidential prospects. It put a stop to his rise in politics.”
Mary Jo Kopechne died a horrific death before she got to see the age of 30. Ted Kennedy had to settle for a lengthy and illustrious career in the US Senate instead of becoming president. For too many blinded for far too long by the Kennedy Mystique, there has never been a doubt as to which was the greater tragedy.