A drunken U.S. Senator drives off a bridge, leaves a young woman to die, deploys a heel-clicking squad of sycophants to manage the police and the press, and gets off with a tap on the wrist. That is certified movie material but this one appears nearly 50 years after the facts. That should serve as evidence of the Kennedy family’s enduring influence. For the full back story see The Kennedys: An American Drama, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz.
The July, 1969, events dramatized in Chappaquiddick were also overshadowed by the first moon landing, a project of Ted Kennedy’s brother John, the 35th president of the United States. So boomers, Gen X types and millennials alike may remain shaky on the story. Chappaquiddick is better late than never but when it comes to the sensitive ground the film treads softly.
The “boiler room girls,” who had worked for Bobby Kennedy, had come down for a drunken bash with Ted and his posse. The film portrays this party like something from a sixties beach movie, with not a single navel in sight. When Ted, ably played by Jason Clarke, takes the beautiful Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) into his cavernous 1967 Oldsmobile, his purpose is not to talk campaign strategy. Like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Teddy had more lascivious objectives.
The drunken Kennedy drives off a bridge into Poucha Pond, and one of his first thoughts is “I’m not going to be president.” He shows little if any concern for the 28-year-old woman gasping for air in the submerged car and he leaves her there to die. The film does a decent job of showing his evasive actions after the fact, but curious viewers should cross-check everything with Leo Damore’s Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-Up. As that masterful work shows, virtually everything Ted Kennedy said about the incident was a lie.
Chappaquiddick shows how Kennedy marshals his handlers to control the police, the hearing, the victim’s body, and the press. The most casual viewer will get the feeling that without the Kennedy family connection, Teddy would have been just some other upper-class puke. Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) writes his explanatory television speech, which Ted’s handler says is “all bullshit.”
En route to Mary Jo’s funeral, Joan Kennedy tells husband Ted to “go fuck yourself.” Many viewers will sympathize, but that is not the curtain line. That comes when patriarch Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) tells his son “you will never be great.”
As the film explains at the end, Joe Kennedy passed away four months later and Ted Kennedy went on to be “the Lion of the Senate,” with the fourth-longest record at the time of his death in 2009. The intended takeaway is that Senator Edward Kennedy overcame the tragedy of Chappaquiddick and did indeed become great. Liberal Democrats of the time certainly didn’t think so.
“There is hardly a personal tragedy in the husk that he has so patently become, because there never was enough of a nut inside it for even a squirrel to nibble on,” wrote Henry Fairlie in an October 18, 1987 New Republic piece headlined “Hamalot: The Democratic Buffoon-in-chief.”
Fairlie found “little evidence that any wheels are turning inside his skull,” and “every image that the Democrats have to overcome – that they overtax the Middle Americans, try to meet social problems only with a proliferation of programs, are the junior partners of vociferous but marginal interest groups, look too carelessly at the credentials of the Third World movements and leaders, and neglect the security of the nation and of the free world – is kept alive by this buffoon.”
Ted Kennedy was also a pioneer in seeking the influence of hostile foreign powers in the
American electoral process. In 1984, Kennedy sought help from the Soviet Union, then headed by the KGB’s Yuri Andropov, an old-line Stalinist. Kennedy offered to lend Andropov a hand in dealing with President Reagan. In return, the Soviet boss would lend the Democratic Party a hand in challenging Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. The gambit failed, and Reagan won in a landslide over both the Democrats’ Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro and Communist Party USA candidates Gus Hall and Angela Davis, who now leads the pussy-hat marches.
No film has dared to tackle Teddy’s collusion with Russian Communists, but the Massachusetts Democrat has been portrayed on television. In the 1988 Saturday Night Live skit “Dukakis After Dark,” Phil Hartman plays Kennedy, who is guzzling booze and hitting on Kitty Dukakis. That is still worth a look, and viewers might ponder another reality.
Chappaquiddick opens with stock footage that is heavy on Ted’s brother John. On January 20, 1961, in his inaugural address, JFK said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The man who said that would not be welcome in today’s Democratic Party.
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