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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. TangoMan says:

    which the car he was driving ran off a bridge and plunged into the water, killing his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne.

    If specific information is available then a good reporter should use the specific rather than making do with general information.

    The above description omits reference to the fact that Kopechne was alive when Kennedy left the vehicle and likely could have been saved if he had called for aid instead of keeping silent. The impression that the obit leaves with the reader is that Kopechne died from the impact of the crash. This impression makes her death look like an unfortunate accident rather than the more serious event that it was.

  2. Charlotte says:

    But his story simply can’t be told with the word Chappaquiddick.

    However, Mary Jo Kopechne’s life WAS told with the word Chappaquiddick.

    Pardon me while I go puke.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    Is the proper measure of comparison the media treatment of Michael Jackson with that of Kennedy?

    Jackson had a very successful career, many supporters and fans, but also had a very public and troubled encounter with the justice system that tended to be emphasized by his detractors.

    I’m not arguing total equivalence btw/ pop star and politician, but shouldn’t the presumption be that if a news media mentions the child molestation charges against Jackson in his obit, Chappaquiddick would be mentioned by that same media outlet regarding Kennedy? And vice versa?

  4. Maggie Mama says:

    PD Shaw, you are ignoring a continuing pattern of irresponsible behavior on the Senator’s part … I refer you to a naked from the waist down Senator embroiled in the middle of a rape trial … and the reason, many believe, Senator Kennedy married again.

    Courtesy of the library of trutv.com here’s “A Cry In The Dark”:

    “It was nearly eleven in the evening on March 30, 1991 when Senator Ted Kennedy, his son Patrick, 23, and nephew William Kennedy Smith, 30, left the Kennedy family’s Palm Beach, Florida ocean front holiday retreat to go out for drinks at a popular bistro known as Annz. Even though it was late, things were just getting moving in the city and the Kennedys wanted to be a part of the fun. After a brief stop at the bistro, Ted, Patrick and William went to another nightspot named Au Bar, where trust fund idlers, obscure blue bloods, bejeweled society matrons and erstwhile celebs like Roxanne Pulitzer went to rub elbows, Michelle Green reported in an April 22, 1991 People Weekly article.

    While at the bar, Patrick met a 27-year-old Testas Restaurant waitress, Michelle Cassone, with whom he danced and shared drinks. William also met a woman named Patricia Bowman, a 29-year-old single mother out with her girlfriend, Anne Weatherly Mercer. Later that evening when the bars closed, the two couples went back to the Kennedy family retreat for the remainder of the evening.

    Michelle and Patrick drank wine and talked in the living room. According to Green, at one point Ted Kennedy walked into the room without his trousers and sporting only a long-tailed shirt, something that made Michelle Cassone feel extremely uncomfortable. She was quoted in the article saying that they went to sit outside on the sea wall, where the three talked about the ocean and the importance of the family.

    In a different location at the Kennedy compound, Patricia Bowman and William Kennedy Smith were talking as they strolled along the beach. In a December 1991 People Weekly article, Linda Mark quoted Patricia as saying that William suddenly took off his clothes and jumped in the ocean. Feeling uneasy, Patricia turned around and started back towards the house. It was then, Mark suggested, that William allegedly tackled Patricia, threw her to the ground and, despite her cries of protest, raped her. Soon after, Patricia went back to the house and called Anne Mercer, who picked her up at the Kennedys’ residence. She was taken to the Palm Beach Police Station where she made a rape report and was then taken to Humana Hospital, located nearby, where she was treated for injuries and subjected to forensic testing. A police official stated that he was, 99 percent sure that Patricia was the victim of a sex crime, Green reported.

    Michelle, Patrick and Ted, who were also at the estate, allegedly had no knowledge that any crime occurred that evening. The following Monday, news of the alleged rape spread quickly. In fact, at the time it became one of the most highly publicized rape cases in United States history.”

    Just your typical Kennedy felons.

  5. Steve Verdon says:

    Is the proper measure of comparison the media treatment of Michael Jackson with that of Kennedy?

    Okay how about Richard Nixon?

  6. mannning says:

    Requiescat in pace.

  7. John Burgess says:

    …Kennedy eventually shed his playboy image to become a serious political presence in the Senate.

    ORLY? I recall being in Belfast in 1997 or 98 when Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd arrived to take part in a POTUS visit. They checked into their hotel then crossed the street to a pub. Waiting for them were two of N. Ireland’s women-for-hire, there by pre-arrangement.

  8. Eneils Bailey says:

    TangoMan,
    Good catch.

    Kopechne was alive when Kennedy left the vehicle.

    Which is pertinent to him being a coward.

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Ted Kennedy exhibited behavior for which most of the rest of us would have had to be incarcerated for. There was an incident at a DC restaurant named the Brazzier which involved Sen. Dodd, Kennedy and a waitress. Kennedy should have gone to jail for what he did there. Kennedy was an unconvicted criminal sexual predator. May he rest in peace.

  10. Anderson says:

    Boy, you wanna see some pissed-off liberals, look here.

    Seeing a blog post that quoted Charles Pierce’s egregious “His brothers might be alive,” I couldn’t resist adding, “Not to mention Mary Jo Kopechne.”

    That did not go over well.

    I’m happy for the good that Kennedy did, but not for the bad. And I smell a pre-feminist whiff in the apparent agreement of the authorities that a dead woman was too trivial an impediment to a Kennedy’s career.

    Had Kennedy acted like a grownup, not only would Ms. Kopechne have had a good shot at dying of natural causes; but Kennedy might’ve won the White House in 1976, done a better job than Carter, and spared us Reagan in 1980. WAY TO GO, TED.

  11. EG says:

    But his story simply can’t be told without the word Chappaquiddick.

    And apparently Chappaquiddick is the ONLY part of the story that needs to be told this sad little blog.

  12. davod says:

    As I recall Edward Kennedy also advised the Russians on how to intervene in a presidential election.

  13. Eneils Bailey says:

    But his story simply can’t be told without the word Chappaquiddick.

    Yeah, I remember now. That Kennedy boy got in trouble over that.
    What ever happened to him? Hope he got some driver’s training, Red Cross lifesaving training, and learned how to hold his liquor.

  14. TangoMan says:

    And apparently Chappaquiddick is the ONLY part of the story that needs to be told this sad little blog.

    There are plenty of other Kennedy misdeeds which are not getting the attention they deserve. His outright lying to advance his agenda:

    “First, our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually. Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same…. Secondly, the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset…. Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or the most populated and deprived nations of Africa and Asia…. In the final analysis, the ethnic pattern of immigration under the proposed measure is not expected to change as sharply as the critics seem to think…. The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants. It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs.”

    We can see that his ideological comrades have adopted the same tactics – say whatever you need to say, even if it amounts to up is down, so long as you can pass the legislation, then when the legislation works as intended and it is too late to put the broken egg of a nation back together again you move onto the next piece of work intended to destroy the fabric of civilization and bring about some type of New America that is congruent with a universalist socialist worker’s nirvana. Health care reform is the most obvious contemporary example, but future immigration bills will follow the “Kennedy Lying Model.”

  15. An Interested Party says:

    Oh woe is me! Our poor broken egg of a nation…all because of those dirty, illegal brown people! That’s ok, though…I’m sure Sarah Palin will ride to the rescue of us all in 2012…

  16. sam says:

    I recall being in Belfast in 1997 or 98 when Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd arrived to take part in a POTUS visit. They checked into their hotel then crossed the street to a pub. Waiting for them were two of N. Ireland’s women-for-hire, there by pre-arrangement.

    Gosh, think of the confusion, not to say disappointment, had it been Larry Craig and David Vitter.

  17. John Burgess says:

    As it was Kennedy and Dodd in Belfast at that time, I restrict my comments to that event. Had Vetter or Craig been there and done the same, they’d come in for the same criticism.

    If the point is to simply throw a bunch of crap around, then you’re welcome to expand it to include the majority of Congress from about 1812 or so…

  18. anjin-san says:

    James,

    While Kopechne was certainly an integral part of Kennedy’s story, this post could have waited until after the funeral. No class.

    As for the right-wing hate fest, well, we have to consider the source. Hate is what these guys do.

  19. Mithras says:

    Boy, you wanna see some pissed-off liberals, look here.

    It seems to me they’re more disgusted with your trolling than pissed off.

  20. sam says:

    If the point is to simply throw a bunch of crap around

    Seriously? In view of your modest contribution to the slimefest, that’s rich.

  21. ggr says:

    As for the right-wing hate fest, well, we have to consider the source. Hate is what these guys do.

    Did you spend much time on left-wing blogs or sites like Salon after Novak died? Or when Reagan died? Hate definitely exists in equal measures on both wings.

  22. Anderson says:

    It seems to me they’re more disgusted with your trolling than pissed off.

    If “trolling” = “reminding hero-worshippers of uncomfortable facts,” then hell yeah, I’m a troll.

    Kennedy was a tragically flawed man who accomplished a great deal of good, but could perhaps have done more but for those flaws.

  23. anjin-san says:

    Did you spend much time on left-wing blogs or sites like Salon after Novak died? Or when Reagan died?

    No time at all. I have better things to do. I liked Reagan, and had no interest in hearing people speak ill of him after his death. That is always bad form.

    So your excuse is “they did it too”? That stopped working for me when I was 7.

  24. ggr says:

    So your excuse is “they did it too”? That stopped working for me when I was 7.

    On the contrary, you’ll notice I haven’t been saying anything negative about Kennedy. And while saying “they did it too” is infantile, criticizing one side for doing something commonly done by both is simply dishonest.

  25. anjin-san says:

    If “trolling” = “reminding hero-worshippers of uncomfortable facts,” then hell yeah, I’m a troll.

    No, just kind of a jerk. Kennedy’s faults are well documented. Rehashing them before he is even buried is very bad form indeed.

    but could perhaps have done more but for those flaws.

    In other words, he was human.

  26. Drew says:

    Sen. Kennedy was a drunkard who committed manslaughter. Don’t run from the facts.

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t honor and acknowledge an extraordinary Senate career, but no sugar coating either.

    By the way, spare me the comments on waiting awhile before politics to seep in. The Democrats are dancing on his grave – wait, he’s not even buried yet – for health care legislation reasons.

    Truly ghoulish.

  27. TangoMan says:

    Senator Kennedy’s passing is certainly news, but there is bigger news taking place. Look at these cable ratings from last night – an endorsement from Governor Sarah Palin helps to drive Glenn Beck’s ratings 5.5 times higher than Chris Matthews.

    People are interested in watching the death circus surrounding Kennedy but they’re far more interested in learning about the Communists that President Obama is appointing throughout the government.

  28. anjin-san says:

    The Democrats are dancing on his grave – wait, he’s not even buried yet – for health care legislation reasons.

    Actually, they are honoring his memory by pursuing the cause he was most passionate about. I doubt he would be offended that they are invoking his name in the process.

    But I guess when you are a bottom feeder, it is pretty hard to see anything up in the world of light and air…

  29. Stan says:

    TangoMan, could you name some of those Communists?

  30. anjin-san says:

    could you name some of those Communists?

    Well, there is Stalin, and that Lenin dude. Feliks Dzerzhinsky is part of it. Obama put them in charge.

  31. An Interested Party says:

    Oh, I think Palin’s fanboy is referring to this guy…real scary, this “communist”

  32. anjin-san says:

    Van Jones is redder than red! His grandpappy founded the Comintern….

  33. anjin-san says:

    You have to wonder if “Tangoswithhimself” has a photo of Glen Beck taped to his headboard. He sounds smitten…

  34. TangoMan says:

    There is Van Jones, the communist who favors revolution. There is Jeff Jones, one of the founders of the Weather Underground, whose community organization wrote large portions of the Stimulus Bill. There is John Holdren who advocates for forced mass abortions.

    You know, the one promise that President Obama kept is the promise to get ACORN and related groups to aid, during the transition and during his administration, in shaping his agenda. As then Senator Obama noted in his interview with Gibson, his primary motivation was to redistribute wealth even if his policies produced sub-optimal economic results. It’s no surprise that he’d bring self-professed communists and failed revolutionaries into his orbit.

  35. TangoMan says:

    I forgot to mention Obama’s Diversity Czar who champions Hugo Chavez and his efforts to shut down the independent press in Venezuela.

  36. An Interested Party says:

    The Democrats are dancing on his grave – wait, he’s not even buried yet – for health care legislation reasons.

    Truly ghoulish.

    Whoever could they have learned that from…