Sunday, September 06, 2009


In the early 90s, my family vacationed on Martha's Vineyard with another family. We did this for 3 or 4 years, until more children needed summer jobs to pay for college and there wasn't a need to rent a big beach house. It was during one of those summers, when I discovered I didn't hate history.

We had taken a day trip to Chappaquiddick Island, and went to the bridge where Teddy Kennedy didn't make the corner and left Mary Jo Kopechene to die inside his car. It was at that point it hit me: history is just the story of what has happened, and why. And sometimes, if you understand the why, you can find patterns and and get a deeper undertanding of what happened.

It turns out he was not the first Kennedy to be part of my history readiness. When I first met Mike, who was a history major, we got talking about the Bay of Pigs incident and I just casually said something about the Cuban Missle Crisis saving Kennedy's presidency: had that turned out differently, JFK would be remembered for a failure and not for staring down the Ruskies and winning.

In the years since visiting Chappaquiddick, I've wondered if that incident changed Teddy into the Lion of the Senate; without it would he have remained the spoiled youngest child of American 'royalty'? The best assessment is Teddy was driving drunk, and why a married man would be on a deserted road with a young political groupie... well, ask Bill Clinton why that might happen. He made a bad choice that night and a young girl died. Chances are good that his family name kept him out of prision. From there, his life could have gone two ways: continuing to be a partying playboy or accepting responsibility and making changes.

I have no way of knowing how haunted he was by this incident, but I imagine it never quite went away. While I will never be able to assess Teddy's life without thinking about Mary Jo, I have to admire him for facing his history, and working tirelessly to not have that be the only way he was remembered. I don't think he pushed for universal healthcare for his own glory, but I do think he was prodded along by a ghost who would never quite leave his side. I don't believe she died for the betterment of our society or anything quite that trite, but I do believe it would have been worse had her death meant nothing to him.

The Senate is a lonlier place with Teddy's passing. I hope he was able to apologize to Mary Jo's ghost, and that his soul is now at peace.


Katie said...

It wasn't until he married his second wife Victoria Reggie that his personal life stabilized. Her influence helped him resume a productive career in the Senate.

Katie said...

I want to hope that he apologized to Mary Jo too.

hoyden said...

I have been struggling to reconcile what I know about Chappaquiddick with the work he did later in life. I get frustrated with news reports that make only a slight mention of Mary Jo and then wax eloquent about his life. A woman died because of the actions he did, and then didn't, take. While he shouldn't wear a hairshirt forever and it should be not be the entirety of his story, doesn't she deserve some respect in all the media attention?

I think you've done a nice job of voicing some of my own rather incoherent thoughts.

I think I saw that HBO was making a documentary about him, I hope they do an honest job of it.