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US Democratic politician Edward Moore Kennedy aided his brothers John and Robert Kennedy in their presidential campaigns of 1960 and 1968, respectively, and entered politics as a senator for Massachusetts in 1962.
By 1969 it seemed that the fortunes of the Kennedy dynasty in American politics would be revived by “Teddy”, then 37 years old and gaining rapidly in prestige and experience as a US Senator.
American voters were increasingly attracted to him. he had the same ruggedly handsome looks as his brothers, and, apparently, the same strong-willed personality. With three years to go until another presidential contest, there was already a movement to groom the young Senator as a candidate for that election.
The prospect of candidacy for Teddy Kennedy vanished in a blaze of scandal in July 1969, when he left a young woman dead from drowning while he fled in selfish panic.
For almost twelve hours the body of political secretary Mary Jo Kopechne was trapped in the rear seat of the Senator’s car, which had plunged off a narrow bridge into an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean; and for twelve hours Teddy Kennedy’s actions were those of a man frantically trying to set up an alibi for himself.
Apparently desperate to keep the news of the car accident a secret, he failed to notify police or potential rescue services, hoping, he admitted later, that ‘the sense of guilt would somehow be lifted from my shoulders’.
As Mary Jo Kopechne died choking for air in the rear seat of the flooded car, so too did the political ambitions of Teddy Kennedy and the faith the American public had in him.
Teddy Kennedy and his friends were familiar sights during the summer months in and around the fishing and yachting towns of Cape Cod and Nantucket Sound, where the Atlantic breakers pound at the shores of Massachusetts.
For more than 30 years the Kennedy family had been taking part in the annual summer yachting regattas and races off the sandy beaches of the picturesque island of Martha’s Vineyard. There were cheers and friendly waves of recognition for Teddy Kennedy when he arrived at the harbour of Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard on the afternoon of 18 February 1969.
By 8.30 that evening, Kennedy was entertaining a group of people at a secluded rented cottage on Chappaquiddick Island. Among the guests was 29-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, one of the enthusiastic ‘boiler room’ girls who had worked behind the scenes on the campaign to win the nomination for the late Senator Robert Kennedy in the presidential election of the previous year.
Three hours later Mary Jo left the cottage with Teddy Kennedy in his Oldsmobile. The car sped off towards the crossroads half a mile from the cottage, where a sharp left turn along the tarmac road would have taken them to the ferry landing stage, facing the bright lights of Edgartown on the main island of Martha’s Vineyard, just a hundred yards across the channel.
But the car turned right onto a rutted dirt road, away from the ferry and towards the thin strand of deserted beach on the eastern end of Chappaquiddick Island. The beach stretched out in a long peninsula, almost cut off from the island by a deep tidal lagoon. Across that inlet of water was the narrow wooden Dike Bridge.
As the car sped onto the bridge, it skidded and plunged over the side into the chilly water. Unseen by any witnesses, it slipped beneath the waves. But a few seconds later, gasping for air, Senator Edward Kennedy bobbed to the surface and crawled to the safety of the beach.
Mary Jo Kopechne was still trapped inside.
Senator Kennedy explained later how he had mistaken the turning at the crossroads and how he had dived repeatedly into the surging waters, trying to rescue Mary Jo from the sunken car, after he had crashed from the bridge on the unfamiliar dirt road.
Exhausted by the effort, Kennedy rested for 15 minutes and then started running back towards the cottage where the barbecue was still in progress.
On his way back he passed a house only 200 yards from Dike Bridge, but he never stopped to raise the alarm.
It was the Senator’s behaviour when he finally reached the cottage which was to add even more fuel to the scandal. Dripping wet, Kennedy stayed outside in the garden and called for one of the partygoers to send his cousin Joe Gargan and Kennedy family legal advisor Paul Markham out to talk to him.
In the darkness of the garden he explained what had happened and the two men bundled him into a car and drove immediately back to Dyke Bridge. Both Gargan and Markham stripped off and tried unsuccessfully to reach the trapped girl.
In despair, all three men returned to their vehicle and drove off, leaving Mary Jo Kopechne behind, probably already dead – but just possibly trapped in an air pocket inside the sunken vehicle, struggling for her life. Again the men passed the house only a short distance from the bridge without making any attempt to raise the alarm.
At the inquest later, Joe Gargan testified that Teddy Kennedy did not even want the other party guests at the cottage to be told of Mary Jo Kopechne’s death. Kennedy did not even want to return to the cottage himself, and asked the two men to drive him back to the crossroads and towards the ferry landing.
At the landing Kennedy could have used a telephone to summon the ferryman from the other side to come and pick him up. But Gargan and Markham watched as he dived into the water and swam silently, with powerful strokes, across the channel to Edgartown.
Assuming he had gone to raise the alarm, Markham and Gargan returned to the cottage and rejoined the party. Neither of the men revealed anything of the drama which was still being played out.
Teddy Kennedy slipped quietly out of the water at Edgartown Harbour and went straight to a room at the Shiretown Inn, which had been booked previously. He changed into clean, dry clothes and soon retired for the night.
At 7.30 AM the following morning he ate breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant and chatted with fellow yachtsmen about prospects for the day’s sailing. At 8.15, Joe Gargan and Paul Markham arrived on the first ferry and hurried to meet Kennedy at his hotel
By that time, Kennedy’s upturned Oldsmobile limousine in the water beside Dike Bridge had already attracted attention, and Edgartown Police Chief Jim Arena went across on the ferry to investigate. Mary Jo’s body was discovered in the wrecked car.
A short time later Chief Arena met with Kennedy, who had failed to report the accident nine hours earlier, back in Edgartown. Arena listened in disbelief as Kennedy recounted the events of the previous night.
Three days later, after he had rejoined his family, Teddy Kennedy was charged with leaving the scene of an accident and failing to report an accident. When he appeared in court, his advocate Richard McCarron pleaded guilty on his behalf. Judge James A Boyle sentenced Kennedy to two months imprisonment. The sentence was suspended.
In the election of 1972, the Democratic choice to contest the White House against Richard Nixon was George McGovern. Nixon won re-election.
Edward Kennedy died of brain cancer on Tuesday, 25 August 2009, at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.