The 2018 movie, “Chappaquiddick” about a 1969 scandal involving Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy, strongly suggests, through the character of Kennedy’s cousin Joseph Gargan, that Ted’s only moral choice was to resign from the US Senate after his irresponsible behavior that fateful weekend. Despite some factual inaccuracies and literary license taken, I think the movie provides a good case study in ethics for communications students who would consider working for a politician. I would ask students to imagine themselves on the staff of an ambitious politician and how they would handle this PR disaster.
The questions of Kennedy’s legal culpability, whether he or his staff were guilty of obstruction of justice, whether he would have received a jail term if he were an average citizen and whether this represented a major corruption of justice I leave to students of history to debate. (See below.)
If he resigned, his family’s story, reputation and legacy would have ended in a third public tragedy.
If Kennedy resigned from the Senate, he would not have served another four decades in Congress nor amassed a record of legislative accomplishment — hundreds of new laws — that placed him among a handful of the most significant senators in American history.
Is this event from 1969 and Kennedy’s life far enough removed from 21st-century politics that students can make evaluations without regard to their own political views or their family’s opinions of the Kennedy family? If so, it will prove that it was indeed a long time ago.
Related Biographical Material:
To understand the full context of his life probably requires watching a documentary like “Teddy: In His Own Words” from HBO.
Chappaquiddick: For the Prosecution
Power, Privilege and Cover-Up, by Leo Damore. This investigative reporter discovered what prosecutors did not: that Kennedy’s license was expired at the time of the accident, that Kennedy tried to persuade his cousin Joseph Gargan to take responsibility for not reporting the accident immediately, and to claim that Kennedy himself was not in the car. Damore, whose book was published before Kennedy’s 1994 re-election campaign, was the first to conduct an interview with Gargan, who revealed his estrangement from the Kennedy family. Damore also reported that the scuba diver who reached the wrecked car in the morning after the accident, believed that Kopechne could easily have survived in an air bubble for up to four hours, and did not try of drowning but of asphyxiation. Damore also reports the judge’s conclusion that Kennedy lied, that he and Kopechne were not headed for the ferry as he claimed, making a wrong turn, but to the beach for a late-night swim. He also describes the many ways Kennedy’s advisors and Massachusetts officials protected him from the media and from the opposition, including Nixon administration skulduggery.
Chappaquiddick Speaks, by Bill Pinney (2017). A life-long Chappaquiddick resident and former investigative reporter, Pinney introduces the first new witness in almost 50 years, utilizes a physicist and a police consultant to analyze the forensic evidence, and concludes Kennedy was probably guilty of gross criminal conduct.
For the Defense
The Real Story, by James Lange, an attorney specializing in accidents involving drunk driving and negligence, concludes that “the senator was largely telling the truth,” was diagnosed with a concussion, and exhibited behavior consistent with “traumatic amnesia” and “befuddlement” that explains, at least in part a confused mental state and why he didn’t immediately report the accident. Massachusetts always had closed inquests into such incidents, to prevent prejudicial pre-trial publicity. After the senator’s plea of guilty for leaving the scene of an accident and delayed reporting of it, a suspended sentence (no jail), and loss of driver’s license was consistent with similar cases.
Remember, this was in the era before courts and judges meted out harsh punishments for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography, by Burton Hersh. A classmate of Kennedy’s at Harvard and writer for Esquire Magazine, Hersh wrote about Teddy since the early 1960s, and produced his first biography of the senator in the 1970s. He saw the doctor’s medical report after Chappaquiddick diagnosing concussion. He believes the Chappaquiddick movie was full of inaccuracies and misrepresentations of Kennedy’s character.
The Truth We Will Never Know (Washington Post)
Just a year before the accident, Teddy gave a heart-breaking eulogy for his brother Bobby. (Washington Post)
How much of the movie is actually true? (Boston Globe)