The Chappaquiddick Legacy

The worst moment of Ted Kennedy's life, that led to the death of a woman, remains a hot-button issue for detractors and a historic turning point in the senator's career

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Chappaquiddick. It is a one-word encapsulation of the darkest moment of Ted Kennedy's life. In 1969, Kennedy drove a car off a bridge into water with passenger Mary Jo Kopechne inside. Kopechne died while Kennedy escaped, albeit after he claimed to have repeatedly tried to rescue her. Kennedy didn't report the incident for several hours, and while pleading guilty to leaving the scene of an accident causing injury, his two-month jail sentence was suspended. The event was framed in three ways in the hours after his death: inexcusable, tragic, and fortunate in at least one respect.

  • Unforgivable Under Any and All Circumstances  Conservative media persona Andrew Breitbart was withering in his attacks on Kennedy early today. "Rest in Chappaquiddick," Breitbart first wrote on his Twitter feed concerning Kennedy's death (he also changed his location in his profile to the town). "Fun exercise," he continuted. "Explain Chappaquiddick to a ten year old. Answer their questions factually, dispassionately. Now find me one not horrified." Breitbart also called Kennedy a "unrepentant, self-destructive, hypocritical" "manslaughterer" and a "special pile of human excrement."
  • Ended His White House Chances  Chappaquiddick ruled out Kennedy's chance become president, wrote historian Sean Wilentz. Kennedy didn't understand how the incident ruled out his chances because he never adequately explained his actions. "The disgrace of Chappaquiddick helped cost Kennedy his position as Senate Majority Whip in 1971; and though he seriously toyed with the idea, he also turned aside his admirers' stubborn hopes that he would challenge President Richard Nixon in the 1972 election." Finally, the events began the convergence of "scandal mongering and cynical prurience that forever changed the rules of American political journalism--and from which Kennedy, with his personal demons, would not escape for decades." Kennedy ran unsuccessfully against Jimmy Carter in 1980.
  • It Kept the Lion in the Jungle "In a strange way, the accident on Chappaquiddick may even have magnified Kennedy’s place in the history books," wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jay Bookman. "Chappaquiddick helped ensure that Kennedy’s life played out in the Senate instead [of the White House], where over the decades he would accumulate power, build relationships and craft legislation that affected millions of his fellow Americans."

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