WASHINGTON, April 2, 2018: There was a time when a Clinton – Bill or Hillary – was thought to reside beyond the long reach of the law. It mattered little whether it be an impeachment trial over perjury and obstruction of justice or an FBI inquiry into the illegal warehousing of sensitive State Department emails. The Clintons always managed to skate. It was reminiscent of the criminal brazenness of an early political dynasty, whose youngest standard bearer may very well have gotten away with manslaughter at the very least. That’s the subject of “Chappaquiddick,” a new film scheduled to hit theaters this coming Friday.
The Trump Effect
But today we live in a truly new America. The 2016 election of Donald Trump as president was the American people’s stunning verdict on the shady shenanigans of the corrupt Clinton crime family in the court of public opinion.
ABC’s reboot of the television sitcom “Roseanne” last week offered a further hat tip to the newly powerful Trumpkins of “fly-over country.”
Now, it appears Hollywood believes a decent interval has passed – half a century – paving the way for an honest reexamination of another corrupt American political dynasty. And more importantly, the extent to which some went to shield its reputation and power.
Water as dark as his soul
It all began in late July 1969, two days before Astronaut Neil Armstrong took his “one giant leap for mankind” on the lunar surface. In so doing, he and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin would fulfill the dream of a martyred U.S. president who said Americans should “go to the moon… because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
Back here on earth, close to midnight on July 18th, that president’s younger brother drove his black, 1967 Oldsmobile off a narrow wooden bridge. It landed upside down in seven feet of water.
With him in the car was a 28-year-old campaign worker named Mary Jo Kopechne. These were her last moments on Earth. The driver left her to die in the black waters of Poucha Pond near a place called Chappaquiddick.
The driver was Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy of Massachusetts, later dubbed “The Lion of the Senate.”
Ted Kennedy is the subject of the new film, “Chappaquiddick.” Opening this Friday, it stars Jason Clarke as the reckless, womanizing Massachusetts politician. Kate Mara plays the young Mary Jo Kopechne.
A little time away from the pregnant wives
Kennedy was attending a reunion “barbecue” with the 1968 presidential campaign staff of his assassinated brother, Robert F. Kennedy. Many of the men in attendance were married, including Kennedy, some of whom had pregnant wives, including Kennedy.
None of the wives were in attendance.
Among the partygoers were the single members of the “Boiler Room Girls,” part of RFK’s staff of campaign workers, of which Mary Jo was one.
A government-made mystery
Many books have been written about Chappaquiddick. But no one really knows what happened for sure. Medical Examiner, Dr. Donald R. Mills, described Mary Jo as “the most drowned person I’ve ever seen.” He arrived at that conclusion having examined the body no more than 10 minutes.
Undertaker Eugene Frieh, on the other hand, said he did not see a significant outpouring of water from the victim.
No autopsy was performed.
“There is no truth, no truth whatever, to the widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct that have been leveled at my behavior and hers regarding that evening,” Kennedy would later say in a televised address.
But some speculate that medical examiner Mills’ refusal to perform an autopsy helped cover up Kopechne’s supposed pregnancy.
The fix is in
Meanwhile, Dukes County Prosecutor Walter Steele knew he had to do something. After all, nearly 10 hours had elapsed between the time of the accident and when Kennedy finally informed authorities.
But as Steele said in an interview for the British documentary series “Inside Story”:
“There was a problem because of the passage of time. That was conduct of possible criminal significance. To use the shorthand term, leaving the scene of an accident after knowingly causing bodily injury. But I was not going to participate in any unjust assault on Kennedy because I’m a Democrat… I had been an assistant district attorney under a Democratic regime in Boston. So, I was not going to be perceived as somebody who would join in an unjust attack on Kennedy’s public reputation.”
In other words, Steele, like most Bay State officials, was in the same frame of mind as a certain wet and frantic senator:
“How can I save Ted Kennedy’s ass?”
After concluding negotiations with the senator’s attorneys, Kennedy was charged with leaving the scene of an accident, a misdemeanor. He pled guilty, thus avoiding having to answer embarrassing questions in open court.
His two-month sentence was suspended and he served no time behind bars. But his driver’s license was suspended for one year.
As for Mary Jo Kopechne. She was as much an afterthought for Massachusetts officials as she was for the senator who left her in an air pocket in that overturned Oldsmobile in the dark, swirling waters off Chappaquiddick.
“Chappaquiddick” opens Friday
Mary Jo’s aunt, Georgetta Potoski, told People magazine she hopes “Chappaquiddick” allows the public to remember her niece “not just for how she died but for who she was.”
Just a thought in passing: One year after Chappaquiddick, Kennedy easily won re-election to the United States Senate, earning 62 percent of the vote.
“Mary Jo who?” the good people of Massachusetts seemed to ask.
“Chappaquiddick” opens in theaters Friday.
Top images: Jason Clarke as Massachusetts Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy in the film “Chappaquiddick.” Inset photo of Mary Jo Kopechne.