Mary Jo Kopechne
In my early morning Teddy Kennedy Dead at 77 media roundup post, I observed, “That the Chappaquiddick scandal didn’t make the first several paragraphs — or even first page — of several of these obits is quite remarkable. It would be like writing an obit for Richard Nixon that didn’t mention Watergate or one for Michael Jackson that glossed over repeated allegations of pedophilia.”
Hanna Rosin expands on that point quite a bit, including implicitly pointing out that it was a rather large elephant in the room:
Google Trends this morning is a perfect window into our tabloid culture and the recesses of our depraved minds. While the papers are full of words like “dynasty” and “legacy,” Mary Jo Kopechne, according to Google Hot Trends, is uppermost in our thoughts. Her name comes up as number one in the ranking, and several more places on the list, misspelled. Chappaquiddick shows up high and often, too; once correctly, and then in several illiterate incarnations.
Partly, I blame this discrepancy on the American papers, which are still bent on hagiography. I prefer British obituaries, which tell it like it is. And partly, of course, this is the fault of our vapid tabloid culture. The only surprise today is that Kate Gosselin has been knocked back all the way to number 30. “Michael Jackson alive” is a popular trend. Yeah. Jamming with Elvis.
Finally, there is the issue of the obvious narrative the papers are not stringing together. In my mind, I’ve always equated Ted Kennedy with Chuck Colson, the disgraced Nixon aide who went on to found an admirable Christian organization called “Prison Fellowship.” Public officials who do terrible things and then say they’re sorry (often in a press conference or book) are a dime a dozen. But the ones who do something terrible and then repent indirectly in the form of a lifetime of dedicated public service are rare. Colson and Kennedy are just about the only two I can think of.
Mary Jo Kopechne is on our minds because this narrative about Ted Kennedy makes sense, in some intuitive, appealing way. Kennedy killed a girl. That’s his rosebud. He made up for it partly by declining the ultimate glory of running for president, and choosing the more humble path—helping the underclass using the slow, steady machinery of the Senate.
Other than the fact that Kennedy actually did run for president — in a bitter primary battle with President Jimmy Carter in 1980 — that all strikes me as right. And, indeed, the Guardian obit covers this neatly in a single paragraph:
Kennedy’s career was significantly blighted by the Chappaquiddick incident of 1969 in which the car he was driving ran off a bridge and plunged into the water, killing his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. While he never reached the pinnacle of power, Kennedy eventually shed his playboy image to become a serious political presence in the Senate. His death marks the twilight of a political dynasty and deals a blow to Democrats as they seek an overhaul of the healthcare system, one of Kennedy’s personal goals.
Teddy Kennedy lived an extraordinary life of tremendous accomplishment interspersed with some horrible scandals and family tragedy. It’s why he was such a fascinating figure. But his story simply can’t be told without the word Chappaquiddick.
UPDATE: E&P’s Sam Chamberlain tallied how far into the obits the first mention of the incident appeared:
NY Daily News- 13th graf
Associated Press- 7th graf
Boston Herald- 10th graf
Boston Globe- 5th graf
NY Times- 14th graf
NY Post- 14th graf
Washington Post- 9th graf
Wall Street Journal- 6th graf
LA Times- 12th graf
Chicago Tribune- 12th graf (same obit as LA Times)
Miami Herald- 10th graf
Reuters- 18th graf
USA Today- 19th graf
Politico- 24th graf
The Hill-NO MENTION
Roll Call-25th graf
National Journal-11th graf
Times of London- 8th graf
In fairness, for a variety of reasons having to do with the printing and editing process from bygone days, a newspaper “graf” is often much shorter than a proper paragraph. Still, the most notable single fact about Kennedy’s life was mentioned well after the average reader would have lost interest.