Speaking of Chappaquiddick, as we are all about to do–
Here is a Boston Globe interview with Ted Kennedy on the subject of Chappaquiddick. It ran in July 1979–the tenth anniversary of the event.
The summer of 1979 was also the time Kennedy was considering mounting a primary bid against a sitting president of his own party, Jimmy Carter. He had previously sat out two presidential elections, urged to run by many with dreams of Camelot in their heads but worried privately about whether Chappaquiddick rendered the idea impossible.
After conferring with his family, he determined in the summer of this interview to run. Thus, this Globe article can be seen as something of a trial balloon, testing in his home state of Massachusetts whether a run might be feasible. Given the circumstances it would have been important to know if a story could be fashioned that would get Kennedy sufficiently past the problem while at the same time acknowledging it.
Politics had by this time started on its march to what it is in its current state, fully developed to the point of rot: public relations. And the Kennedys have always been good at PR. So in my mind there is little doubt that the approach he takes in this interview was tested, discussed, and kicked around six ways to Sunday before he sat down with the Globe.
And of course he would choose a paper like the Globe to do this interview. It is not just that the Globe is the big local paper in his home state. It is also the case that the Kennedys had a lot of clout in Massachusetts, including at the Globe, and while Kennedy could not expect reverential treatment under the circumstances he could for sure expect respectful treatment, and no hard questions. Maybe even a softball or two, as we will see.
So note how he handles things. First, he takes full responsibility. He needed to do that. Anything short of that would only underscore the image of callowness that he was trying to duck (and which is of course central to the actual events). But note he does not go into any real detail about his actions. He first refers to the events as a “tragedy” and then a bit later as a “tragic accident”, as though what he is taking responsibility for is limited to the accident. Oops, drove off a bridge! Sorry!
You have to get deeper into the article, on to the next page, for the reporter to go into the details– or, rather, the lack of them. Kennedy had “nothing new” to add to the account since he had “answered all the questions under oath at the inquest.”
Here Kennedy refers once again to the event as a “tragedy”. So well into the interview that is all it is–a very sad thing with no details, something that happened that he takes responsibility for.
At this point the article turns briefly to some of the darker elements, pointing out that Kennedy did not report that accident for 10 hours. But then it quickly adds that he finds his behavior “indefensible”–a nice word, perhaps, as it suggests no need to mount a defense and, in turn, no need to explain or provide details. It’s all in the inquest! You can look it up.
This one reference to the 10 hour gap is as far as the article goes into deeper water. There is no reference to what amounted to a cover up, or that Kopechne would likely have survived if Kennedy were not so callow and his advisors so calculating.
The article skips past this potential hazard like a stone skipping across water, and instead of asking more questions about the actual events the interview moves on to the real goal: Kennedy’s future.
The interviewer wants to know–did your behavior that night suggest you would not be able to handle highly stressful political situations? The presidency is not mentioned at this point but it is of course the elephant in the room, carefully placed there so as to permit a planned response. If he choked on the bridge will he choke in the Oval Office?
Kennedy acknowledges that he failed that night when under great physical and emotional stress. Goodness, he almost drowned himself, he was disoriented, he was exhausted. . . .but no, no . . . “the trauma of that incident does not, I think, relate to public policy questions.” In other words, I’d have had no problem handling the Cuban Missile Crisis with the same steely resolve as my brothers. Possible nuclear incineration is just a public policy matter. It’s not a tragic car accident.
Having maneuvered deftly past the dangerous shoals two-thirds of the way through the interview the last third is a broad reach with the wind at his back. We see the family photos in his office and are reminded about “history and tragedy”, subtly conflating the tragedy of that night in the car with the tragedy of his brothers’ assassinations. He is asked to reflect on whether he fears that he might be assassinated and he says he is aware of the dangers and considers them but balances them against the desire to make “some contributions.” Those Kennedys, always with the contributions!
The presidency finally surfaces, briefly. But the idea does not come up in connection with the purpose of the interview–Chappaquiddick–but only with reference to where the interview has gone: to his brother’s deaths, tragedies of a different kind than Chappaquiddick. Would the fear of assassination stop him from seeking the presidency?
“That would not stop me.”
So we segue nicely from contrition over indefensible, though fuzzily described, actions to the bravery so characteristic of the Kennedy clan.
And as we come to the close of the article the tone gets even more ethereal, with Kennedy quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes about the need to be “involved with the actions and the passions” of one’s time. Very Kennedyesque.
And in turn the Globe, in closing, tosses an easy pitch Kennedy’s way. The interviewer asks if Kennedy “has accepted the idea that he is ‘involved in the actions and the passions’ of this time.”
Clever formulation, no? The Globe asks if he has accepted the role that the great jurist Holmes articulated. Does he understand–does he embrace–his destiny?
“‘Of our times’, Kennedy said, ‘Yes.'”
Well done. Good PR.
Four months later, in November 1979, Roger Mudd asked Kennedy that fateful question in a widely promoted TV interview intended to ease the way to a presidential announcement.
“Why do you want to be president?”
The rest, as they say, is history. Some tragedy too, I suppose, in the dramatic meaning of the term.
Kennedy soldiered on through the nomination process and all the way to the Democratic Convention in New York, where I had credentials to be on the floor. It was here that he made his “dream shall never die” speech. But for Camelot fans everywhere that night it did.
Closing the door to the presidency must have been a cathartic relief of sorts. But there could not have been any true catharsis on Chappaquiddick. He probably carried that burden until his death.