The Norwichj Millionaire sends along this link. Oates is kinder to the man than I would be, or at least she leaves open a question that I would answer in a manner different from the man’s present mourners.
At Chappaquiddick, having been drinking and partying with young women aides of his brother Robert Kennedy, Senator Kennedy, at this time a married man and a father, slipped away with 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, who was trapped in his car after he took a wrong turn off the Chappaquiddick bridge, lost control of his car which was submerged in just eight feet of water.
Kennedy chose to flee the scene , leaving the young woman to die an agonising death not of drowning but of suffocation over a period of hours. Incredibly, it was 10 hours before Kennedy reported the accident, by which time he’d consulted a family lawyer. The senator’s explanation for this unconscionable, despicable, unmanly and inexplicable behaviour was never convincing: he claimed that he’d struck his head and was “confused” and “exhausted” from diving and trying to rescue the young woman and had gone home to bed.
There followed a media circus, as all of the world rushed to Chappaquiddick to expose Kennedy’s behaviour and to speculate on his future. Yet, appealing to his lawyer and not rather seeking emergency help for the trapped Mary Jo Kopechne would seem, in retrospect, to have been a felicitous move.
If Kennedy had summoned aid, he would very likely have given police officers self-incriminating evidence, which might have involved charges of vehicular manslaughter or homicide. The local prosecutor was not nearly so outraged by Kennedy’s behaviour as other prosecutors might have been: the charges were “failing to report an accident” and “leaving the scene of an accident.” The punishment: two months’ probation.
That the Kennedys had always been a family operating outside the perimeters of the sort of legal restrictions that bind other citizens to “moral” behaviour publicly, is well known; no occasion so exemplifies this than Chappaquiddick and the subsequent cooperative silence of the Kopechne family who agreed never to speak of the tragedy.
One is led to think of Tom and Daisy Buchanan of Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby, rich individuals accustomed to behaving carelessly and allowing others to clean up after them. It is often in instances of the “fortunate fall”, think of Joseph Conrad’s anti-hero/hero Lord Jim as a classic literary analogy, that innocent individuals figure almost as ritual sacrifices is another aspect of the phenomenon.
Yet if one weighs the life of a single young woman against the accomplishments of the man President Obama has called the greatest Democratic senator in history, what is one to think?
The poet John Berryman once wondered: “Is wickedness soluble in art?”. One might rephrase, in a vocabulary more suitable for our politicized era: “Is wickedness soluble in good deeds?”
This paradox lies at the heart of so much of public life: individuals of dubious character and cruel deeds may redeem themselves in selfless actions. Fidelity to a personal code of morality would seem to fade in significance as the public sphere, like an enormous sun, blinds us to all else.
Joyce Carol Oates, one of America’s leading novelists, is the author of Black Water, which was inspired by the Chappaquiddick incident
UPDATE: Teddy may be gone but his drinking buddy Chris Dodd is still with us. Here’s a charming vignette of the two of them coming close to raping a waitress in D.C. What a pair of fun-loving guys.