Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Personal Aside: Ted Kennedy’s Good Fortune…er Fortunes.

[Original story appeared in The Chicago Daily Observer—with considerable additions in this version].

No, I have not lost my mind. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s inoperable brain cancer that will inevitably claim his life is seen in secular circles as a tragedy—but Catholics learn early that since death is inevitable, the chance for what theologians call the
”grace of a happy death” can be gained if…as all of us devoutly wish…there is time before the grim reaper comes is put to good use—which applies to all of us…saints, sinners and those in between…for contemplation, contrition, penance, prayer and calm resignation.

Thus it can be said, in theological terms involving repentance and forgiveness for sin, that the 76-year-old lawmaker is incomparably better off than were his three brothers: Joe, 29, who went down in a B-24 Liberator on August 12, 1944 near the village of Blythburgh, Suffolk, England…John, 46, the 35th president who died immediately in assassination on November 22, 1963 in Dallas…and Robert, 45, the New York senator who met death instantly early on the morning of June 5, 1968 as he walked through the kitchen of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles having won the California presidential primary.

I had a most unusual and pleasant experience with the youngest Kennedy scion. In 1977 I was recommended for a fellowship at the John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics, Harvard, with the approval of Newton Minow, JFK’s former FCC chairman, Abner Mikva my congressman and Andrew Young, ambassador to the UN. For a conservative Republican I thought these supporters have enough liberal ballast to get me in to the Democratic-run think tank.

But no. I was blocked and was told by Doris Kearns Goodwin, then a functionary at the Institute, that under no circumstances would I be able to get the Fellowship. Why not? Was the miniscule Harvard quota for Republicans already filled? No. But the Kennedy Institute had its standards and by no means would a corporate lobbyist be admitted. Corporate lobbyists were vermin. So-called “public interest” lobbyists would be admitted i.e. Ralph Nader. Labor union leaders were given a pass. Black civil rights activists were, as well. But corporate lobbyists were seen as so dishonorable that by no means were they allowed to pass through the portals.

The door was closed. However, I was told: if I wanted to pursue the matter, Sen. Kennedy interviews all potential Kennedy Fellows and he would agree to see me…if I wanted to return to Cambridge the next week. I decided what the hell, why not? So I flew back. No sooner had I entered his spacious office at the Institute than I reminded him that in my past I had traveled across the state with the legendary Everett McKinley Dirksen who was a special friend and ally of John Kennedy and Robert. That was the smartest thing I ever did aside from marrying my wife. We swapped Dirksen stories for an hour and Kennedy laughed at the old man’s scatological tales until the water rolled out of his eyes. Especially Dirksen’s frequently uttered view of the current state Republican chairman that…and you’ll pardon me for the scatology…the gentleman “was as dumb as dog-shit.”

Kennedy roared and said excitedly: “That’s where my brothers got that expression!”

Further, I told him that when I decided to try to get congressional approval for affirmative action as an assistant Commerce secretary working for Nixon, I asked Dirksen if this would be a popular idea in the Congress.

Dirksen said: “Yes, very popular. About as popular as a case of crabs in a bordello.”

At the end of the hour, Ted Kennedy stood up, extended his hand and said the stories I told reminded him of ones his brothers had chortled about over drinks with Dirksen. And he offered me a drink—which I took. Before I left, I asked if I had been accepted.

“Accepted?” he said. “For what?”

As a Kennedy Fellow.

“You go out there and tell the dean that you are head of the class,” he said. That was just about the last time I talked with him.

I am indebted to Ted and liked him that afternoon hugely. But few have been as fortunate as he. Even with this malady.

For he will have ample time to mull over many-many things during this interregnum…time others haven’t had. I particularly would advise him to review two (of many) episodes.

First, the meeting he and Bobby called for the family estate at Hyannisport in 1964 before abortion had become a federal issue. But the issue was moving front and center in state legislatures and the meeting was called to provide advice for Bobby who was running for the New York senate seat—but also for future Kennedys like Ted who wanted to follow Bobby in the presidency.

Smoothing the Way for Catholic Abortion Acceptance.

Attending that huddle in Hyannisport were Fr. Robert Drinan SJ (later to become a pro-abortion congressman from Massachusetts); Fr. Charles Curran, a non-Jesuit whose writings against Humanae Vitae were condemned later by the Vatican; Fr. Joseph Fuchs, SJ, a professor at Gregorian University, Rome; Fr. Richard McCormick, SJ, later to become the Rose Kennedy professor of the Kennedy Institute for Bioethics at Georgetown and after that a theology professor at Notre Dame; Fr. Giles Milhaven, SJ who later figured in the early operation of “Catholics for Free Choice” and Fr. Albert Jonsen, SJ.

According to Philip Lawler in his brilliant new book about how Catholicism receded in Boston, “The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture [Encounter: 2008]”, the hireling theologians worked for two days to develop a rationale for the Kennedys to handle the issue. “Eventually they reached a consensus, which they passed along to their political patrons. Abortion, they agreed, could sometimes be morally acceptable as the lesser of two evils. Lawmakers should certainly not encourage abortion but a blanket prohibition might be more harmful to the common good than a law allowing abortion in some cases…President Kennedy hads already laid the foundation for the argument that a Catholic politician must not attempt to enact his private religious views; now his brothers were prepared to take the next step forward. They were ready to explain that they were personally opposed to the abortion ban, but…”

From that time on, a smattering of Jesuit theologians provided a cover for that effort, writes Lawler including after “Roe” Ted Kennedy’s front-and-center support for abortion rights and his vote even for partial birth abortion—though stopping short at supporting the “Born Alive” ban (which Barack Obama personally endorsed while a member of the Illinois legislature, differing from such worthies as Kennedy, Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein). Tacit acceptance by Catholicism’s first Democratic family paved the way for the later pro-abort triumphant procession with the entire supposedly Catholic Massachusetts congressional contingent, extending now all the way through the Catholic wing of the Democratic party including Mayor Richard M. Daley, Dick Durbin et al.

Nineteen-sixty-eight could well have seen the second Kennedy made president. At the Democratic national convention in Chicago in 1968 with his brother Robert dead, Eugene McCarthy failing to pick up the liberal slack and Hubert Humphrey unattractive to the peace delegates, Mayor Richard J. Daley privately joined with powerful California state house speaker Jesse (Big Daddy) Unruh to try to draft Ted Kennedy at the last minute for the nomination. Ted could have gotten the nomination without a struggle since McCarthy had expressed to this writer and others that he would withdraw in Ted’s favor (“which is what I wouldn’t have done for Bobby”)—but Ted turned it down. His tender age, 36, wasn’t a problem, McCarthy told me later since most of the founders were young men when the Constitution was ratified—Jefferson, 43, Madison, 35, Hamilton, 36.

If Kennedy had said yes, the emotion of the country was such after the murders of two Kennedy brothers that he would assuredly have defeated Richard Nixon who had the dark visage of Richard III. Ted decided he could wait until the disruption engulfing the Democrats over Vietnam was settled. He would run in 1972. Wrong. By then he couldn’t.

Then Came Chappaquiddick.

The second: Chappaquiddick. Less than a year later, on July 18, 1969 came what has ever since been known as the Chappaquiddick Incident and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign worker for Robert Kennedy whose dead body was discovered inside an overturned car belonging to Ted Kennedy in a channel on a small island adjoining Martha’s Vineyard. No satisfactory answer has ever been supplied by Kennedy or his supporters for the tragedy. An unconscionable delay in reporting the accident caused Kopechne’s death. Kennedy passed four homes with telephones after the accident and didn’t call the police until the next morning, the 19th. In the meanwhile, the overturnbed car was found in the pond by two fishermen who called police.

A diver was sent down and discovered Kopechne’s body. At the inquest, the diver, John Farrar, testified that Kopechne’s body was pressed up in the car in the spot where an air bubble had been presumably formed. The inquest said the bubble could have allowed her to breathe for two hours afer the accident. Farrar testified: “Had I received a call within five to ten minutes of trhe accident…and was able as I was the following morning to be at the victim’s side within 25 minutes of receiving the call…there is a strong possibility that she would have been alive on removal from the submerged car.” Kennedy’s dithering, cowardice and emotional paralysis…fear of political retribution…led to the stall, most say.

Mary Jo had an estimated two hours, trapped in the upturned car, to contemplate: max.

The Only Possible Answer.

Not long ago, a friend of mine told me a very interesting thing. He is now a prominent educator at Harvard, tenured, fashionably liberal, in his 60s—and in 1968 he was a young staffer to Bobby Kennedy…a close friend of the “Boiler Room Girls,” the females who worked Kennedy campaigns with single-minded dedication. He then served as a staffer to Ted Kennedy.

He dated Mary Jo Kopechne. He filled in a blank space on that episode that makes sense. Relatively few know the Kennedy background that this balding professor know…and we spent a good deal of time as he worked through with me his conjecture on how Chappaquiddick happened.

Understand, he was not present at the July 18, 1969 reunion of six women known as the “boiler-room girls” who had served in Robert’s 1968 presidential campaign—but his theory seems to me to be water-tight if you’ll pardon the implication.

First let’s review the facts: The party was held at a borrowed facility, Lawrence Cottage, on Chappaquiddick island, adjoining Martha’s Vineyard and connected to it by ferry. Present were the six women, Ted Kennedy, Joesph Gargan, his cousin, Paul Markham, a friend of Gargan’s who would become U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Charles Tretter, an attorney and John Crimmins, Ted’s part-time driver. Kennedy was competing in the Edgartown Yacht Club Regatta, a sailing competition which was taking place over several days. Among the women present was Kopechne. Rumors have been flying around ever since the incident that she was a sexual playmate of Ted. Not so, says my friend who had dated her casually. In point of fact, Mary Jo was the opposite of a sex object, a kind of ever-loyal female nerd, the opposite of a vamp, who hardly dated, never had a romance (my friend’s association with her was platonic), who was ever-loyal and ready to do the grunt work. She was kind of like everyone’s kid sister. My friend makes no bones about that. She was the kind of girl who ran around in a circle—not a high cheek-boned beauty but a gawky, freckle-faced kid sister everyone sort of protected.

While the others were distinctively party-girls, Mary Jo was not. She would take one drink, maybe a watered down cocktail or a glass of 3.2 beer…and as the party would liven up, she would kind of slip out and get in the back of a car owned by the one who brought her, curl up, dose and wait for the driver to come back to take her home. Not that she objected to the liveliness of a party but that she was kind of an oldish young girl, not endowed with looks or charm but just a loyal, dependable type, a kind of younger sister to the boiler-room girls.

She came to the party in Ted Kennedy’s car, along with a number of other girls, most of whom were attracted to the Kennedys, especially the senator and who were quite used to the ways of the world with the family, he says: Kopechne being the only odd-exception. There was no doubt that there was ribaldry, drinking and joshing of a sexual innuendo nature that went on…as well as promiscuity… between the men and the attractive young women of the world, he says—as he had been with them at other outings in the company of the Kennedys. According to testimony of the other party-goers, Kennedy left the party at about 11:15 or 11:30 and Kopechne asked for a ride back to her hotel.

At this point, my friend, who talked extensively with other party members following the inquest has an important amendment. As was her style, Kopechne had one drink and slipped out to take her accustomed spot, curled up in the back seat of Kennedy’s car, his mother’s 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88. Kennedy was feeling no pain nor was his female escort. They gabbed a lot as the half-inebriated senator maneuvered the car, evidently planning a tryst for himself and the girl with Kopechne knowing about the possibility or asleep.

Here I stopped him. I asked: Planning a tryst with Mary Jo in the car?

He said: “You don’t understand how Bachannalian the Kennedys were, from the old man, who brought Gloria Swanson on the Queen Mary to Europe with him while he traveled with Rose, to John who fooled around with Jackie’s press secretary, Pamela Turnure and scores, literally scores, of others whom Jackie had to know about.” He is right. All you have to do is to read Sally Bedell Smith’s “Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House,” a book notable for its explicitness but also its annotation, one that has been cited by most scholars as revisionist-authentic. Kennedy men were reared to be womanizers in imitation of Old Joe—and John Kennedy was one of the worst, often disappearing in social events with a young woman for hours at a time while Jacqueline, as Ethel Kennedy had counseled, was expected to understand. Bobby was less so; Ted was more so.

Back to the Chappaquiddick incident as reported by my friend—again, who was not there but whose close acquaintance with those who were has given him a special insight.

He added: “Knowing about the possibility was de rigeur with boiler-room girls who protected—and sometimes participated in--the Kennedys’ vaunted womanizing…with the exception of Mary Jo who wasn’t interested, nor were the Kennedys attracted to her. But she was expected to `understand’ the promiscuity and sexual indulgence that would go on. The Kennedys behaved like British kings from the time of Henry VIII. Everyone knew who the concubines were and assented as did Mary Jo.”

The story resumes. Inebriated, Kennedy was searching for a place to conduct the tryst with his attractive and willing female companion in the front seat while Mary Jo, curled up in the back seat, understood the drill from many other occasions with both Bobby and Ted. Both Kennedy and his tryst-object were so tanked—and Mary Jo on many other occasions like this one, so silent and acquiescent—they forgot she was present. Kennedy was trying to find a place for seclusion with the female companion. A deputy sheriff testified at the inquest that he saw Kennedy’s car on Dyke Road at 12:40 a.m. and that the driver sped off when he approached it.

Now as all agree, Kennedy made a wrong turn onto an unlit dirt road that led to Dyke Bridge, a wooden bridge angled obliquely to the road with no guardrail, and drove over its side. The car plunged into tide-swept Poucha Pond and came to rest upside down under water. Kennedy and his front-seat boiler-girl companion were able to swim free of the vehicle and both were immensely relieved to have escaped death, forgetting in their alcoholic haze about Mary Jo in the back seat. Still inebriated they decided to get out of there, believing that while they were the worse for wear, they had survived.

Kennedy claimed at the inquest that he called Kopechne’s name several times from the shore, then tried to swim down to reach her seven or eight times—doubted by my friend. His story is he then rested on the bank for several minutes before walking back alone to Lawrence Cottage where others of the party was still feting. My friend says the two of them walked back to the Cottage. Their walk took them past at least four houses which had telephones where he could have summoned help—but no call was made. His story is that he summoned Markham and Gargan to come to the pond to help him. Both reported they tried to dive into the water to save Kopechne many times. Then, Kennedy’s story continues, when the diving attempts failed, he told them to return to the college, “take care of the girls and I will take care of the accident.” It is their story that they assumed Kennedy would inform authorities once he returned to Edgartown and so they did not do so themselves.

My friend’s story makes more sense. Kennedy and the boiler-girl escort who had been seated next to him in the front seat of the car, zapped out of their minds with booze, managed to escape from the overturned car in the pond and stumbled back to Lawrence Cottage, completely forgetting Mary Jo’s having been in the back seat—understandable since her and others’ presence at romantic rendezvous and trysts were always understood—and at the time, dismissed. In fact, Kopechne’s presence was blotted out for a time since the harrowing episode almost cost their own lives. To them, not remembering Mary Jo’s presence, since they had escaped, the event was merely an automobile accident—something that could be reported the next day rather than in the middle of the night to police.

When they got back to the Cottage, they told the group and only then somebody said, “where was Mary Jo?”

Kennedy and the boiler-room girl both said almost at once: “GOD! She was with us! We remember now!”

The boiler-room girl dissolved in tears. The other girls hugged themselves and sobbed at the grisly thought of Mary Jo, trapped in the car and dying.

Finally Gargan shouted to them: “Stop it! Stop it now! We can’t help her. We’ve got to protect the senator!”

They all agreed.

What to do now?

A curtain of silence was imposed on the group by Kennedy and the two other men. Boiler-room people had long appreciated that confidentiality was mandated for Kennedy activities. A huddle was called between the three men and a rough plan detailed. By now Kennedy and his boiler-girl escort remembered firmly--Mary Jo had indeed been in the car. But now it was adjudged now too late to save her: the crucial thing was to save Kennedy from embarrassment and prosecution which would end the Kennedy idyll. They never could settle on a plan. It was too complicated. . There was an argumentative struggle over whether or not someone else should take the blame in order to protect Kennedy: but since this would mean prosecution, no one volunteered. But all agreed that the police should be notified. Who would do it? Kennedy insisted that one or the other of the two men do it—he was vociferous that he should not do the reporting. Neither of the two men, understandably, wanted to report something they had nothing to do with.

This much they agreed to: Kennedy would go back to his hotel in Edgartown and call the police from there. Some discussion ensued as to whether or not it might be possible to suggest that Mary Jo had taken his keys and had driven his car, overturning it in the pond—but that was vetoed. There was no semblance of a general agreement on how to handle the problem. Obviously it was too late…and all were in too bad a shape…to reach a coherent strategy. What they did agree to was that Kennedy should get the hell out of there and go to the hotel in Edgartown. The girls went home and Kennedy was driven by Gargan and Markham to the Edgartown-Chappaquiddick ferry which connects Chappaquiddick to the rest of the island.

But once there, more complications. The ferry was down for the night. As the three stood there wondering what to do, Kennedy said he would at least solve this dilemma. He swam the 500-foot channel back to Edgartown, went to his room, got into dry clothes and fell asleep on his bed at about 2 p.m. The two other men left. There always was the question whether he took off his shoes for the swim. Of course: he would have to. But strangely, that detail was not remembered when my friend questioned around.

At the hotel, Kennedy didn’t call authorities about the accident as he had indicated he would do. Instead, he decided he had to invent a scenario that would say he was at the hotel that night. So at 2:55 a.m. he went downstairs, presented himself to the hotel clerk and others and complained that he had been awakened by a noisy party. This was to certify that he was in the hotel. He returned to his room, stayed awake for a time, then dozed. Then at 7:30 in the morning he made it a point to talk casually to the winner of the previous day’s sailing race—again as to establish his whereabouts. Still no phone call. But by then, unknown to him and the others, two fishermen had discovered the upturned car in the pond and called authorities. A diver was sent out to discover if anyone was in the car.

Back in Edgartown, at 8 a.m. Gargan and Markham came to the hotel and were astounded to discover that Kennedy still had not notified the police. They got into a heated conversation over why he had not done so—and what to do now. Then all three of them took the ferry to Chappaquiddick, where at a pay phone near the dock Kennedy made a series of phone calls to some friends asking for advice and to Kopechne’s parents reporting her likely death. Now events that were clearly out of control had taken over the operation.A diver, John Farrar, was sent down and discovered Kopechne’s body. He testified at the inquest that her body was pressed up in the car in the spot where an air bubble would have formed. He later concluded that “had I received a call within five to ten minutes of the accident occurring and was able, as I was the following morning, to be at the victim’s side within 25 minutes of receiving the call, in such event there is a strong possibility that she would have been alive on removal from the submerged car.” The car was hauled up and the license plate was identified as belonging to Rose Kennedy—but, of course, a follow-up showed it was driven the night before by Ted Kennedy.

When Kennedy finished making his phone calls, he was informed that the car was hauled up and the body discovered, he crossed back to Edgartown and went to the police station to report the accident. The Kennedy scenario was that Gargan then told the boiler-room girls what had happened: my friend says they knew what happened when Kennedy had returned from the accident. Kopechne’s parents did not allow an autopsy to be performed on their daughter. They did not bring any legal action against Kennedy but did receive a payment for $90,904 from him personally and $50,000 from his insurance company—pretty paltry pickings for the enormity of the tragedy that happened to them by Kennedy’s taking the life of their daughter. The Kopechnes later explained “we figured that people would think we were looking for blood money.” Their attitude changed later. There were public recriminations by them. Then they shut up. My friend says they were…let us say…adequately dealt with.

The vast Kennedy crisis machine swung into action. On July 25, seven days after the incident Kennedy entered a plea of guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. He wore a neck brace, worn on orders of his lawyers, my friend says, to show he was injured in a serious way—a public relations symbol of a sort to ward off belief that he had not suffered. The Kennedy clout fixed the verdict so that he received a sentence of two months in jail—suspended—and lost his driver’s license for a year. Later on TV he announced it was “indefensible that I had not reported the incident to the police immediately.” He said “I was overcome, I’m frank to say, by a jumble of emotions—grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion and shock.” He denied he had been engaged in “immoral conduct” with Kopechne or that he had been driving drunk.

District Attorney Edmund Denis was granted a hearing on petition for exhumation of Kopechne’s body based on the funeral director’s claim that blood was found on the body and clothing. But there is little evidence to corroborate and the finding is uncertain as to whether she was injured in the crash or in a frenetic struggle within the car. An inquest into her death took plce in Edgartown in January, 1970. Kennedy’s legal team got the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial court to order it be conducted in secret. A 793-page transcript was released four months later. Judge Boyle concluded that Kennedy and Kopechne did not intend to return to Edgartown when they left the party, that Kennedy did not intend to drive to the ferry slip and that Kennedy’s turn onto Dike Road was intentional. He said “negligent driving appears to have contributed to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.” While under Massachusetts law, Boyle could have ordered Kennedy’s arrest, he did not. Denis chose not to pursue Kennedy for manslaughter despite Boyle’s findings.

Do you think anyone but a Kennedy would get off this lightly?

And, while we are not given to judge, it is mark of singular good fortune to him that Ted Kennedy will have time to ruminate about the things he did, both good and bad, in his political and private life…

…as well as contemplate the lesson his Church has always taught about the purpose of life—specially the folly of elevating fame, riches and political power so as to disvalue the pursuit of holiness.

Hang in there, Ted. In more ways that men can count, you’ve been and are a lucky man.


  1. Tom,
    Your background on the Kennedy plan for "personally opposed, but..." as well as your knowledgeable friend's take on Chappaquiddick and your own story of working through and around Ted are fascinating and compelling reading.

    Do I gather then that the 1971 letter from Sen. Kennedy to the gentleman on Long Island which suggested that a well stated recitation of Catholic Church teaching on abortion squared with the nation's cultural fabric and indeed ought remain the nation's orientation that has circulated for some years in pro-life circles was nothing but the pre-Roe party line while the blessing had already been given to New York and other states which were jumping to allow or support abortion? Or is the letter an outright fraud?

  2. While this last post was pretty lengthy, it does seem to explain to me, for the first time, in a manner that makes some sense, what really COULD have happened at Chappaquiddick. Of course no one knows for certain what happened except the persons in the car, one of whom is already dead, and another who soon will be.
    I also appreciate your truthful but reasonably respectful comments on Ted Kennedy's illness. I have never agreed with his politics and would never vote for him even if he were the last candidate on earth. But I would not wish this particular disease on anyone. My father-in-law died of a brain tumor very similar to the Senator's. From the day of his diagnosis to the day he died was less than 5 months. The experimental treatments he was convinced to undergo were worse than the ravages of the disease itself. The Senator will certainly have an opportunity to undergo some of his purgatory ahead of time.
    Many of the comments I have seen on other blogs, ostensibly from fellow conservatives, have been absolutely vicious and appalling. Whatever he has done in the past publicly or privately is all the more reason he needs our prayers now.

  3. Tom, very interesting scenario from your friend regarding Chappaquiddick. However, I have always been influenced in my thinking on this matter by Leo Damore's 1988 book on the incident entitled "Senatorial Privilege". Damore used the technique of an investigating reporter, obtained previously undisclosed revelations from important witnesses, and scoured the available records to lay out a very convincing history of the tragic incident. Two important departures from your friend's theory are that (1) there was no evidence of anyone being in the car with Kennedy other than Kopechne, and (2) Kennedy, Gargan, and Markham did not reveal to the remaining "boilerroom girls" that night that Kopechne had presumably drowned. If the Damore book is accurate, in my opinion it would have been impossible to suppress all available evidence that there was another girl in the car and that the "boilerroom girls" were informed of Kopechne's fate that same night while still in the party house. Damore does carefully document that the "boilerroom girls" completely cooperated with Kennedy's staff once they learned of the accident the next morning and agreed to be quickly wisked away from Martha's Vineyard to avoid the possibility of submitting to police or reporters' interviews without adequate "preparation". One of the bombshell's in the Damore book was that Kennedy, while standing on the dock with his aides, subtly suggested that one of them take the rap for the accident. After neither of them took the bait, Kennedy then made the impulsive move to swim back to Edgarstown.

    I think that the unfortunate facts regarding Kennedy's fatal drive are known only to Kennedy, and that he will keep them to himself to the grave.