The summer of '69 drew to a close on Martha's Vineyard with a new show at Edgartown's only movie house.
"Now for the first time at popular prices -- CAMELOT," said the sign at Ye Olde Town Hall Photoplays. "All tickets $2.00."
For Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (d-mass.), Camelot seemed out of reach at any price. It had disappeared weeks eariler when he belatedly trudged into the police station next door to report a traffic accident on adjoining Chappaquiddick Island.
Now, 10 years later, Kennedy has declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, inevitably triggering memories of the tragedy that interrupted his carreer. Rumors about it persist. Questions remain unanswered. Even today, not even the police chief of Edgartown at the time feels that he knows just what happened -- nor when -- nor why.
In many respects, Kennedy has only himself to blame. He told his friends he would report the accident and then he went to his room, acting in such a manner that he seemed to be trying to establish an alibi. He gave out a timetable for his actions that was contradicted by a deputy sheriff who would seem to have had no reason to lie. He failed to supply pertinent facts until he closeted himself with advisers for a a televised speech that raised more questions than it answered. He objected, successfully, to a public inquest into death of Mary Jo Kopechne, the woman who died in his car. He rejected, without elaboration, the findings of the inquest judge who concluded that he had been lying on crucial points. He ignored inquiries from the press until more than five years had passed.
Now a new myth is in the making as Kennedy tries to put Chappaquiddick behind him. Asserts his press secretary, Tom Southwick, "He's always made an effort to answer questions on this as fully and truthfully as he can."
The magistrate who presided at the closed inquest, District Judge James A. Boyle, thought otherwise. He concluded that Kennedy and Kopechne knew just where they were going when they slipped away from their companions that night and drove off a bridge leading to a lonely ocean beach. The judge found it probable that Kennedy not only knew of the hazardous bridge ahead of him , but that, for some reason not apparent from the testimony, he failed to exercise due care as he approached the bridge.
It has been called a trivial accident, but its impact on American politics and public policy, like the assassinations of his brothers before him, was incalculable. But for the murders of John and Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon might never have been president. But for Chappaquiddick, the elections of 1972 and 1976 might have turned out quite differently. the importance of Chappaquiddick now lies in what the voters make of it, in what it tells them, or fails to tell them, about Edward Kennedy.
The central facts, blostered by excerpts from the inquest record that the case was closed, are these:
Shortly after 1 p.m. on Friday, July 18, 1969, Kennedy landed at the Vineyard Haven airport to take part in the annual Edgartown Regatta and to attend a cookout party at a rented cottage on Chappaquiddick Island that evening. The senator's chauffeur, the late John B. Crimmins, picked him up and drove him along Chappaquiddick's only paved road to the cottage where Kennedy changed into a bathing suit for a brief swim.
Crimmins took Kennedy to the beach in the senator's black 1967 Oldsmobile, turning right off the macadam street onto a bumpy dirt road and then across a humpbacked bridge to the dunes on the east side of the island.
The court: Did you drive over Dike Bridge?
Crimmins: Yes, I did.
The court: Did you have any difficulty negotiatiing it?
Crimmins: Just the hump.
Mary Jo Kopechne and the five other young women who had been invited to the weekend outing had already been over the same bridge themselves that day. They were swimming at the beach for an hour or more before Kennedy arrived. All were veterans of the late Sen. Robert E. Kennedy's 1968 presidental campaign.
Crimmins waited for Kennedy to finish his dip, then took him back to the cottage back over the rail-less wooden bridge, back down the dirt road, then left onto the paved highway. The senator changed into a dry bathing suit and his chauffeur took him back to the ferry slip on the west side of the island. There Kennedy waded out to his yacht, the Victura, for the afternoon's sailing. The women watched the race from a fishing boat that Kennedy's friend, former U.S. Atorney Paul F. Markham, had chartered.
The Victura placed ninth in its class, crossing the finish line at 5:05 p.m. Kennedy congratulated the winners, checked in at the Shiretown Inn in Edgartown and then walked down to the ferry to cross over to Chappaquiddick again with Crimmins. The Olds was parked on the other side. Crimmins drove him to the cottage, again along the paved road leading from the ferry slip.
By 8:30 p.m. all the partgoers -- Kennedy, five other men and six women -- had arrived. But after several hours over drinks, hors d'oeulvres and charcoal-broiled steaks, Kennedy told Crimmins he wanted to leave and asked for the keys to the Olds. Kopechne left with him. She did not take her purse.
Q. When you left at 11:15 with Miss Kopechne, had you had any prior conversation with her?
Kennedy: Yes, I had.
Q. Will you please give that conversation to the court?
Kennedy: At 11:15, I was talking with Miss Kopechne perhaps for some minutes before that period of time.I noticed the time and desired to leave and return to the Shiretown Inn and indicated to her that I was leaving and returning to town. She indicated to me that she was desirous of leaving, if I would be kind enough to drop her back at her hotel [the Katama Shores]. I said, "Well, I'm leaving immediately," spoke with Mr. Crimmins, requested the keys for the car, and left at that time.
Instead of heading for the ferry slip, they turned down the dirt road to the beach for seven-tenths of a mile before coming to the bridge. The car plunged into the tideswept pond below, landing upside down in about six to seven feet of water. Somehow, Kennedy managed to get out, apparently through an open window. Kopechne did not.
The court: I'm going to ask one question. At any time after you got on the unpaved road, the socalled Dike Road, did you have a relization that you were on the wrong road?
Although he said his neck was throbbing and his head aching, Kennedy said that he dove down repeatedly, perhaps sevens or eight times, to resuce Kopechne but that finally he gave up and staggered to shore. Exhausted, he guesses he rested for 15 to 20 minutes before he got up and headed back to the cottage for help, pasing several lighted homes along the way. Closer to the cottage, there was a volunteer fire station with a glowing red emergency light and an alarm system that could have awakened the whole island. The station was unlocked and inside, among other equipment, there was an oxygen mask in a black case. Kennedy on.
Back at the cottage, Kennedy got in the back seat of a rented white of a rented white Valiant, the only car left, and summoned his cousin, Boston lawyer Joe Gargan, and Markham.All three later testified that they returned together to the bridge where Gargan and Markham dove into the water in another unsuccessful effort to reach Kopechne. They said they spent about 45 minutes before giving up. Then they drove off again.
Q. What conversation was going on -- on this dirt road -- as you were driving? By the way, where were you going to?
Markham: I don't know. We were just driving back to the [paved] road. The senator again became very emotional. He was sobbing and almost on the verge of actually breaking down crying. He said, "This couldn't have happened.This couldn't have happened" . . . He said "What am I going to do, what can I do?"
Moments later, Markham testified, Kennedy told them, "'Okay, take me back to the ferry.'" But "by this time," Markham said, "there were no ferries."
Q. What happened when you arrived at the ferry area?
Markham: We went over there. He [Kennedy] said, "I will take care of it, don't alarm them back at the cottage, I am going to go across." And with that I don't know whether we were out of the car or in the car, but he got out of the car or went from the car and swam across.
For the second time that night, Kennedy said he thought he was going to drown as he struggled against the tide to swim the 500-foot channel. But he made his way to the shore and walked to his room at the Shiretown Inn, arriving there, "I would say some time before 2" a.m. He said he collapsed on his bed, got up after a while, and changed his clothes. Then he stepped out of his room and spotted the inkeeper, Russell Peachey, standing outside his office.
Q. Did you recognize him?
Peachey: It wasn't until I spoke to him that I realized who it was . . . He said he had been awakened by a noise coming from a party next door. He went to look for his watch, he couldn't find it, and wondered what time it was . . . I turned and looked in the office window at the clock in the office and it said 2:25 and I told him it was 2:25. w
A few hours later that Saturday, around 7:30 a.m., A Rhode Island businesman who had won the first heat in the regatta against Kennedy, the late Ross W. Richards, found the senator walking toward him outside the Shiretown. Kennedy walked back with him to the porch, chatting with him and several others who joined them for about half an hour. They talked of the races, the weather.Nothing was said of any accident. The senator acted as though it were just another day.
The bell rang for breakfast at 8 a.m. when Markham and Gragan turned up -- "soaking wet," according to one account police took from Richards, but only "ruffled looking" and "damp," according to Richard's testimony at the inquest. In any case, Markham and Gargan went with Kennedy to his room where, Markham and Gargan later testified, they learned that he had not yet reported the accident.
Q. Did he say why?
Markham: We asked him why. It was, I just couldn't believe that the didnt report it. I said "What happened to you?" And he said, "I don't know." He said, "It was just a nightmare. I was not even sure it happened.' And I said, 'Well, it happened, and you have go to report this thing and you have got to do it now."
First, however, the three men, Kennedy, Markham and Gargan, walked down to the ferry and crossed over to Chappaquiddick again. Gargan told the senator there was a pay phone in a shack by the ferry slip that Kennedy could use with "some privacy." He called his administrative assistant, Dave Burke, and told him to try to reach the Kennedy family lawyer, Burke Marshall. But by then, the car had been discovered and identified as Kennedy's. Ferryman Richard Hewitt walked over and asked Markham if he'd heard about the accident. "'Yes, we just heard about it,'" Hewitt quoted Markham as telling him.
At that, Kennedy finally returned to Edgartown and went to the police station with Markham to report the accident. The chief, Dominic J. Arena, cited him later in the day for leaving the scene of an accident, a misdemeanor. Kennedy pleaded quilty the next Friday, July 25, before Judge Boyle. The sentence: two months in the workhouse, suspended, and a one-year suspension of his driver's license. The death of Kopechne, 28, was ruled an accidental drowning. Local authorities quickly dismissed the question of whether any negligence might have been involved.
Partly because it involved a Kennedy, partly because it produced such stony silence from those who were with him, partly because of the deference shown him by Massachusetts authorities, Chappaquiddick has sporadically preoccupied the press, the public and politicians for years. It was the thought of finding out more that spurred one of President Nixon's White House "plumbers" -- W. Howard Hunt -- to get his ill-fitting red wig and other disguises from the CIA. Another Nixon spy, Antony Ulascewicz, rented a New York apartment furnished with velvet wallpaper and fur rugs, reportedly with the idea of arranging the seduction of some of the women at the cookout party and then blackmailing them with compromising photographs. They got nowhere, found out nothing.
Hunt says all he knows about Chappaquiddick is what he's read in two books on the subject. But he still gets inquiries from people convinced that he knows the Real Truth. Back to writing fiction himself, Hunt couldn't help clucking over an item he'd read about a ghoulish demonstration Kennedy encountered in Louisville, Ky., last month, complete with the dummy of a female corpse and a sign reading "Murderer."
"Surely that comes under the heading of proscribed activity in the post-Watergate morality," Hunt said in a recent telephone interview. "I look on these things with a little wryness, you understand."
Legiimate questions, however, remain. The record of the inquest, tightly circumscribed by the judge amid, questioning by an almost diffident district attorney, abound with contradictions and inconsistencies. Kennedy, the first witness to be called, was not asked about any of them. No one was subjected to cross-examination.
Evidently hoping to lay the issue to rest before the campaign heats up, Kennedy has been granting interviews as never before, inviting reporters to ask him any questions "right now -- because I will answer them -- I have answered them in the past."
In fact, he has not always been so accessible. In the months that followed the mishap, he declined, through his aides, to answer detailed questionnaires from the press until the inquest was done. When that was completed, he said he would have nothing further to say. It was not until 1974 that he gave his first interview on the controversy, to the Boston Globe. He spoke again, to the Associated Press, in connection with a long article published in 1976. He entertained more questions earlier this year on the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, but those interviews resulted primarily in feeding speculation that he was casting an eye on the White House.
The anwers, by now, seem almost memorized. An interview with the senator about the details of Chappaquiddick is distinctly unenlightening exercise, frequently punctuated by denials before the questions are completed. Sometimes Kennedy tries to fob off questions by alluding to what he said at the inquest. Occasionally he has to be reminded that he was never asked the question. On one particular point, he has to reminded that his testimony then doesn't quite square with what he is saying now.
These are some of the unsettled questions to be dealt with in the second part of this series:
When did the accident happen?
Why did it happen?
Had Kennedy been to Chappaquiddick before?
Did Kennedy enertain the idea of establishing an alibi?
How much drinking took place at the cookout?
Did Massachusetts law enforcement and judicial authorities bend over backward for Kennedy?