20 September 2019
Ted Kennedy was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne and given a two-year suspended jail sentence. Photo: JFK Library
Ted Kennedy was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne and given a two-year suspended jail sentence. Photo: JFK Library

How the Chappaquiddick incident may have changed US history

A recent dramatic homicide case in Hong Kong in which a university professor was arrested on a charge of murdering his wife and daughter by allegedly gassing them inside his car has reminded me of the infamous “Chappaquiddick incident” that took place in 1969 in Massachusetts. It involved the late US senator Ted Kennedy.

In fact, fatal car crashes that were faked to make them look like accidents have remained a subject of interest among international relations academics, because there is no shortage of cases like these which involve famous politicians.

Even though there are still a lot of unresolved mysteries about the Chappaquiddick case, there is one thing for certain: the incident had profound implications for US politics as it spelled the end for the “Kennedy Dynasty”.

According to Ted Kennedy’s affidavit, after a dinner gathering with his late brother Bobby Kennedy’s former campaign staffers on July 18, 1969, on Chappaquiddick Island, he drove one of them, a 28-year-old woman known as Mary Jo Kopechne, back to her home, only to find themselves lost in the dark.

Worse, Kennedy later accidentally drove his car off a bridge into the sea. In consequence, Kopechne was trapped and drowned inside the car as it submerged whereas Kennedy managed to escape and leave the scene intact.

The reason why the case has aroused such a lot of suspicions and speculations over the years is because many details in Kennedy’s testimony simply don’t add up. For example, why didn’t he report the accident immediately to the police afterwards? Why did he stay in a hotel for over 10 hours before dialling 911?

Ted Kennedy was later convicted of manslaughter and given a two-year suspended jail sentence.

While over the decades there have been a lot of conspiracy theories about the accident, like Ted Kennedy could have been driving under the influence of alcohol on that night, or it could have been a carefully perpetrated plot to kill Mary Jo Kopechne, perhaps what the BBC has come up with makes the most sense to me: Ted Kennedy could have had an affair with Kopechne at that time.

When he drove her back that night, they could have run into some police roadblock. Worried that their intimate relationship might come to light and as a result ruin his political career, Kennedy could have left the vehicle in panic and let Kopechne take the wheel on her own. She then accidentally drove the car off the bridge into the sea since she was totally unfamiliar with the terrain on the island.

Shortly after the incident, Kennedy’s wife miscarried, and some gossipy people said it could have been karma.

The Chappaquiddick incident was not only a huge national scandal but also a highly influential event, because many historians are convinced that Ted Kennedy would very likely have followed in his two brothers’ footsteps and run for president in 1972 or 1976 had it not been for the mysterious death of Kopechne, which dented his reputation for the rest of his life.

However, the fact that Ted Kennedy declined to run in the 1972 presidential election, which resulted in Richard Nixon’s victory, not only marked the dawn of realism in US politics, which would go on to reign in Washington in the following decades, but also signified the end of the era of “aristocratic politicians” in the Democratic Party.

Suffice it to say that the Chappaquiddick incident not only cost Ted Kennedy political capital which was necessary for him to become the master of the White House like his elder brother did, but also, to a certain extent, changed the course of US history.

Nevertheless, Ted Kennedy couldn’t fight the itch to run for president in 1979, only to be beaten by the incumbent president Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primaries, not least because of his part in the Chappaquiddick incident.

Ironically, Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in the election by a substantial margin and failed to secure a second term. The rest is history.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 11

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal