With that mumbled response in a crowded Edgartown, Mass., courtroom last week, the last Kennedy broke a week's pained and damaging silence on the night that changed his life—and moved to short up the last tottering towers of Camelot. He had spent his longest week closeted with kinsmen and advisers against a gray drizzly chill that blanketed Hyannis Port, wondering whether his and his family's claim on the Presidency of the U.S. had died in the auto accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne. The decision to plead guilty was the easiest part of the strategy they worked out—an utterly routine deal in which Teddy took a two-month suspended sentence and averted a potentially messy trial. The critically hard second step came some 10 hours later when Kennedy went on television before and estimated 35 million Americans with an extraordinary confession that he had fled in panicky confusion from a crisis—a flight he himself judged "indefensible"—and threw himself on the mercy of the only jury that finally counted: the voters of his state and his nation.
His 17-minute speech was, as one sympathetic politician said afterward, "a Checkers speech with class"—a mea culpa as affecting and as exquisitely crafted as the Kennedys and all their gifted retainers could make it. It was, at its poignant best, a dramatic admission that even Kennedys are vulnerable to that all too human impulse to run away from trouble—an instinct that most men experience and not all master. But the hard fact remained that for all the conceptual brilliance of the TV presentation, Ted Kennedy still had not answered the questions of what really happened the night his car ran off a rickety bridge into a pond on Martha's vineyard's lonely satellite, Chappaquiddick Island.
Calculated Risk: Instead, he raised a question no one else had asked: "where I should resign" from the Senate. And his decision to seek guidance from the voters of Kennedy-struck Massachusetts seemed far more calculated than risky—as the predictable flood of Teddy-don't-quit calls and wires instantly affirmed. Democratic pros, as a consequence, were moved—but not to the point of judging that Teddy had recovered his sorely damaged hopes for the party's Presidential nomination in 1972. And that was the political question really at issue. "This thing has a long fuse," said one old LBJ staffer, not entirely unhappily. "This is the fall of the House of Kennedy."
The obituary may yet prove premature—but even so, there was a widespread belief in Washington and beyond that Kennedy's statement was possibly too little and probably too late. The circumstances of the accident, however innocent they may have been in fact, were bad enough on their face for any politician: Teddy and Mary Jo, 28, had just left four other married men and five other single girls at a party at 11:15 p.m. and were headed down a lonely dirt road to nowhere when the car went off the bridge. And Kennedy compounded the disaster when he delayed reporting the accident to Vineyard police for 10 hours, then dashed off a glaringly incomplete first statement and left the Vineyard for the shelter of the family Compound across Nantucket Sound.
For six critical days thereafter, he chose silence—and silence only made matters worse. Kennedy appeared in public only to attend Mary Jo's funeral in the mined out anthracite town of Plymouth, Pa.; otherwise, he and the family brain-trusters—former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, brother-in-law Steve Smith, JFK speechwriters Ted Sorensen and Richard Goodwin—huddled in yet another of those family councils that have helped other Kennedys through other crises, personal and political.
Grapevine: In his silence, others summoned up tales of past Kennedy scrapes (his furlough from Harvard for cheating, his four-arrest traffic record as a law student in Virginia, a noisily drunken ride by commercial jetliner from Alaska to Washington last April) and they assumed the worst about this one. The senator, the suspicious concluded on the basis of such precedents, simply must have been drinking and debauching; he had spent the 10 hours trying to cover the truth; now he and his whole gilt-edged retinue were laboring toward the single end of getting him out of a jam as prettily as possible. The pressure was enormous when Kennedy at last crossed the Sound on the family yacht Marlin to enter his guilty plea—and then flew back to Hyannis to prepare his plea to the people for forgiveness.
The nation indeed hadn't seen the like since the Checkers speech—that celebrated hymn to cloth coats and cocker spaniels with which Richard Nixon got past the teapot-tempest over his personal finances and persuaded Dwight Eisenhower to keep him on the 1952 GOP ticket. One basic difference: Nixon pleaded innocence, Teddy confessed guilt. And there was a vast gulf in style.
Control: The Kennedys, of course, would never put on so provincial a show; their style is Roman, their taste impeccable. They kept teddy's pretty (and four-month-pregnant) wife, Joan, off camera, along with mother Rose, Ethel and others of the assembled clan; the senator mentioned his wife just once, remarking fleetingly that "only reasons of health" had kept her from being with him on the Vineyard that fateful Friday. Nor were there any tears—only a faint thickening in the senator's voice when he spoke of his family's tragic record. He was mostly the picture of discipline and probity and control, posed before the bookshelves in his father's library, his gaze level, his thick mane trimmed and combed down.
He could not speak earlier, he said, because of his court case—but his plea of guilty freed him "to tell you what happened and to say what it means to me." He had gone to the Vineyard with Bobby's son Joe, 16, to sail in the Edgartown Yacht Club regatta—a 30-year family tradition—and that night on Chappaquiddick, he attended "a cookout I encouraged and helped sponsor for a devoted group of Kennedy campaign secretaries."
Leaving with Mary Jo, as he told it, was an almost avuncular gesture—a lift for a girl who had been so devoted to Bobby in life and so shattered by his death that "all of us tried to help her feel that she still had a home with the Kennedy family." He tackled one line of gossip head on: "There is not truth, no truth whatever, to the widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct that have been leveled at my behavior and hers regarding that evening. There has never been a private relationship between us of any kind …" Nor was the party anything but innocent. On the matter of drinking, however, the senator was perceptibly less explicit; he flatly denied "driving under the influence of liquor" and chose to drop the matter there.
His account of the accident itself added nothing to the bare-bones account in his earlier statement. He did not, for example, mention how fast he was going (his formal accident report to the police placed his speed at 20 miles per hour) or how he chanced to miss a well-marked turn leading to the Chappaquiddick-Martha's Vineyard ferry slip. But he did confront the question of the lost 10 hours—a blank covered in his earlier statement only by his insistence that he was exhausted and in shock—and the result was a remarkable glimpse of what he did and felt at his hour of moral crisis.
"I remember thinking that as the cold water rushed in around my head that I was for certain drowning," he said. "Then water entered my lungs and I actually felt the sensation of drowning. But somehow I struggled to the surface alive. I made immediate and repeated efforts to save Mary Jo by diving into the strong and murky current, but succeeded only in increasing my state of utter exhaustion and alarm."
He has been unable since, he said, to make sense of all he said and did in the hours that followed. "My doctors informed me that I suffered a cerebral concussion as well as shock," he said, but he could not blame his behavior—as his first statement seemed to—on "physical [or] emotional trauma … I regard as indefensible the fact that I did not report the accident to the police immediately."
Help: Yet the fact was that he had not. "Instead of looking directly for a telephone," Kennedy recounted, "after lying exhausted in the grass for an undetermined time, I walked back to the cottage where the party was being held and requested the help of two friends, my cousin Joseph Gargan and [Boston lawyer] Paul Markham, and direct4ed them to return immediately to the scene with me—this was sometime after midnight—in order to undertake a new effort to dive down and locate Miss Kopechne. Their strenuous efforts, undertaken at some risk to their own lives, also proved futile …"
And through it all, teddy remembered fighting a terrible inner tumult. He recalled wondering in desperate unreason "whether the girl might still be alive somewhere out of that immediate area, whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys, whether there was some justifiable reason for me to doubt what had happened and to delay my report, whether somehow the awful weight of the incredible instant might in some way pass from my shoulders. I was overcome, I am frank to say, by a jumble of emotion—grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion, and shock …" He told Gargan and Markham not to "alarm Mary Jo's friends" with the news that night, then had them drive him to the ferry landing on the Chappaquiddick side of the 500-foot channel. The found the ferry closed for the night. "I suddenly jumped into the water and impulsively swam across, nearly drowning once again in the effort," said Kennedy. "… [I] returned to my hotel about 2 a.m. and collapsed in my room." Not till the next morning, "with my mind somewhat more lucid," did he try first to reach family lawyer Burke Marshall and then finally, at about 10 a.m., report the accident at the police station.
Had the death of Mary Jo, and the attendant whispers of scandal, ruined him politically? Kennedy could not know. But, as he and his counselors were certainly aware, nothing in politics vindicates like success. So he began his suddenly uphill pursuit off the Restoration by asking a vote of confidence from that old Kennedy family principality, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—which sent him to the Senate by a record plurality of 1 million votes in 1964. "I would understand full well why some might think it right for me to resign," he said. "For me this would be a difficult decision to make … You and I share many memories, some of them glorious, some have been very sad … And so I ask you tonight, the people of Massachusetts, to think this through with me. In facing this decision, I seek your advice and opinion."
He closed with a little homily on bravery (which, incidentally, left the decision on resignation in his own hands, not to a "plebiscite"). It came, though Teddy did not say so, out of John Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage," and it was obvious that the book had been reread for what it could offer in his own test of nerve. But, he said, "stories of past courage cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul. I pray that I can have the courage to make the right decision. Whatever is decided, whatever the future holds for me, I hope that I shall be able to put this most recent tragedy behind me and make some future contribution to our state and mankind, whether … in public or private life."
Few doubted in the aftermath that Massachusetts itself would give Kennedy what he wanted—an overwhelming vote of confidence now and in all likelihood a return ticket to the Senate, his last slender purchase on the presidency, in 1970. Sure enough, the response was immediate and mostly, though not uniformly, favorable. "They're calling by the millions," said an editor at the Boston globe—mostly urging Teddy to stay. Boston radio stations logged keep-Kennedy majorities ranging from 3-2 to 4-1. Western Union offices in Boston and Springfield were swamped with telegrams to Hyannis Port, heavily for keeping Kennedy on. A Western Union man delivered 10,000 of them in one batch to the Compound the morning after the speech.
But the reaction in Massachusetts was one thing, that in the rest of the nation quite another. It was still too early to gauge the national response to Teddy's statement or its eventual political repercussions. "For now, I think he's done it—he's off the hook," said one public-opinion analyst. "But Mary Jo Kopechne will cast a long political shadow over tomorrow."
Courage: Much off the damage done to Teddy's image went directly to the point of his moral courage—a question his TV testament hardly put to rest. "You recall the Hemingway phrase that was identified with Jack Kennedy—'grace under pressure,'" said one top Republican. "The whole Kennedy mystique lay in this quality. But it's hard now to see Teddy any way but as a coward. He's destroyed the Kennedy myth."
There was also the fact that Teddy's TV statement had raised at least as many questions as it had answered and that his decision to plead guilty seemed to foreclose the possibility that these questions would ever be put to the orderly processes of a trial. Thus, the public record remained a hodge-podge of fact, rumor, newspaper sleuthing and the inch-meal revelations of an investigation marked from first to last by confusion, contradiction and buck-passing among authorities on and off the island. Edgartown's police chief Dominic J. Arena, a big, stolid ex-state trooper, insisted from the start that there was no evidence to support any charge against Kennedy more serious than leaving the scene—and, when Kennedy finally pleaded guilty, the harried chief announced with undisguised relief, "We consider the case closed." It wasn't.
Indeed, the senator's appeal to his constituents raised new issues potentially more damaging than anything in his original statement. That handwritten account blamed his 10-hour delay in reporting the accident purely on his own shock and exhaustion. But now, by implicating his friends Gargan and Markham in his delay, he invited the conclusion that what the three of them did was the result of a conscious decision and not just the stumbling of one confused and injured man. Why did they pursue their own efforts to rescue Mary Jo instead of notifying the police or the Coast Guard? And why, having failed, did none of the three call the authorities? Whatever passed among them, the result made them look irresponsible at best—and, at worst, more intent on hushing the accident than on finding Mary Jo.
Delay: And Kennedy's subsequent six-day delay in owning up that his behavior that night had been "indefensible" scarcely helped. For it was not until after the Compound had filled with the old Kennedy company of advisers that Teddy finally decided to plead guilty and attempt an explanation.
The ultimate question that no one could answer was whether Mary Jo might have been saved had Kennedy called the police at once from the first house he passed, 100 yards from the bridge. The possibility seemed remote on its face. But John Farrar, the 33-year-old scuba diver who finally retrieved Mary Jo's body from the sunken car, thought there was a "slim chance" that he and chief Arena might have saved her. Mary Jo's position in the car suggested to Farrar that she might have found a temporary air pocket (though how long this would have lasted with water flooding in through an open window was problematical). Farrar feels Kennedy had no real chance to save her by himself; the water was too inky and the tides too strong for most fit me, let alone a dazed and injured accident victim with a chronically bad back. But Farrar said he and Arena, in diving gear, "had the body out in half an hour after I was called … Even working in the dark, I think we would have had her out in 45 minutes."
Kennedy's TV statement did seem to clear up one puzzle in the timetable. He had insisted from the outset that he and Mary Jo had left the party for the Edgartown ferry at 11:15 p.m., well before the ferry shut down at midnight or 12:30 a.m. But police had set the time of the accident at sometime after 12:50—largely, as it developed, on the word of a part-time deputy sheriff, Christopher "Huck" Look Jr., who reported having seen Kennedy's Oldsmobile turn into the dirt road at about that time. Look thought he saw three persons in the car—and that fell into place with Kennedy's report that he, Gargan and Markham had gone back to the bridge sometime after midnight. But the statement did nothing to clear up why Kennedy originally had missed a left-turn arrow with reflectors pointing the way to the ferry and turned instead onto a dirt road leading the opposite way.
Room Clerk: There were other puzzling questions raised by Teddy's TV statement. By no means the least of them was that posed by the response to his assertion that he remembered leaving his room at the Shiretown Inn in Edgartown sometime after 2 a.m. and saying "something to the room clerk."
The response came from Russell E. Peachey, one of the owners of the Shiretown Inn. The morning after Teddy's TV appearance, Peachey identified himself as the room clerk and went on to give his account of what had happened.
He was standing just outside the office window, he said, when he saw Kennedy, fully dressed, standing some 40 to 50 feet away, in the shadows near the foot of the stairs that led to his quarters.
"May I help you in any way?" Peachey inquired.
He said Kennedy replied, "I've been disturbed by the noise coming from the party next door. I've looked for my watch and seem to have misplaced it. What time is it?"
Peachey said he looked through the office window at a clock inside and answered, "It's exactly 2:25. Is there anything else I can do to help you?"
"No, thank you," said Teddy. Then, Peachey said, the senator turned and went up the stairs to his quarters.
Later that morning, still about three hours before he finally went to the police, Teddy and two companions assumed to be Gargan and Markham were on the ferry going from Edgartown to Chappaquiddick. Just why Teddy returned to Chappaquiddick remains a mystery, but ferryman Dick Hewitt later said that he had asked the three men if they had heard about the accident.
Hewitt said that Kennedy had walked away when he asked the question and that one of the companions had responded, "Oh, yeah, we just heard about it."
As for the "cookout" that preceded Mary Jo's death, no single, coherent account was available. It was the fourth in an irregular and impromptu series of reunions for Bobby Kennedy's "boiler room" girls—the bright and dedicated crew who worked in a top-secret sixth-floor office at his Washington campaign headquarters last year. Neither police nor the press had any trouble reconstructing the guest list. The girls, besides Mary Jo, were Nancy Lyons, now on Teddy's staff; her sister Maryellen, an aide to a Massachusetts state senator; Rosemary "Cricket" Keough, who works for the Children's Foundation in Washington; Susan Tannenbaum, now in New York Rep. Allard Lowenstein's office; and Esther Newberg, who works for the Urban Institute. The men included Kennedy, Gargan, Markham, Ray Larosa, an old sailing chum off Teddy's, and Charles Tretter, a lawyer pal. But the whole lot scattered before Arena could question them, and, though Edgartown authorities talked of getting statements by subpoena if necessary, at least some were never reached by the police.
Most refused to talk about the party; those who did maintained forthrightly that it was precisely the innocent affair Teddy himself said it was. It germinated, Susan Tannenbaum told NEWSWEEK's Jane Whitmore, when the girls began urging some of the Kennedy men—Teddy and Gargan included—to "take us sailing again," as they had done for the first reunion. They settled on the regatta weekend because the girls wanted to cheer Teddy on (he finished ninth), and Gargan made the arrangements, signing an eight-day lease on the cottage for $200 and booking the girls into an Edgartown motel. According to another of the girls, Esther Newberg, Larosa picked them up that Friday evening and drove them to Chappaquiddick. They barbecued steaks and sat up talking. Mary Jo and Teddy were the first to leave, she thought, though no one was keeping track, and she remembered Markham and Gargan going out later for a time. They missed the last ferry, Esther recounted, and so they stretched out to sleep on any horizontal surfaces available: beds, hard couches, the floor. None of the girls knew of the accident, she said, till the next morning, when Gargan broke the news with what in retrospect was an extraordinary understatement: "We can't find Mary Jo."
Miss Tannenbaum flared at the suggestion that the party might have been anything other than a casual get-together. "We didn't take our toothbrushes [to the cottage," she said. "We were registered in a motel." Nor was there, Miss Newburg insisted, "a lot of drinking." The only question pertinent to the inquiry, of course, was how much or how little drinking Teddy did—and chief Arena, as it turned out, never asked him. "If a man comes into my station clear-eyed and walking steadily on his feet with no semblance of alcohol on his breath, I have no business in giving a Breathalyzer [test for drinking]," he said later. Arena, in any event, never budged from his conclusion that "the accident was an accident."
Mary Jo: The one irrevocable fact about the party remained that at the end of it Mary Jo Kopechne was dead. Mary Jo had come to Washington six years before, a twiggily built, blond insurance-man's daughter from small-town New Jersey, a bit mousy at first and star-struck by anybody named Kennedy. But she got jobs first on Florida Senator (and JFK chum) George Smathers' staff, then on Bobby's, and she seemed to flower. She labored hard (the Kennedys remembered her staying up all one night typing Bobby's key Vietnam speech), and the Kennedys rewarded her with a sensitive "boiler room" job, keeping track of delegates in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and the District of Columbia. "Only the great ones worked there," Ethel recalled last week, "and she was just terrific." Friends scoffed at the idea that there had been anything between her and Teddy; it was Bobby she revered and Bobby whose death so disturbed her. And now she lay dead, too, and it was Teddy's agonizing duty twice to call her parents—once to break the news and again next day to tell her father, Joseph Kopechne, in a choked voice that he wished it had been him and not Mary Jo.
Teddy tried to pay for the funeral; the Kopechnes turned him down. But Teddy flew out to Plymouth with Joan, Ethel and a retinue of Kennedy people on a family DC-3. Hardly anyone in Plymouth remembered Mary Jo—her family left town when she was 1—but the prospect of a glimpse of Teddy drew a crush of hundreds of spectators into the street outside St. Vincent's Roman Catholic Church. Teddy slipped into the next-door rectory to meet with the Kopechnes, his face set and grim, his neck girdled in a soft nylon brace for a muscle strain his doctor said he had suffered in the accident. "I saw him, I saw him," teen-agers squealed, and someone waved a placard that said, "Kennedy for President in '72."
Wet Eyes: There was a gasp in the crowd as the Kennedys slipped into their pew four rows back, across from the Kopechnes. Mrs. Kopechne wept into her black-gloved hands. The boiler-room girls cried. Teddy, in plain torment, glanced once at the coffin, then looked away. After the service, he was rushed again till he slipped at last into his limousine and threaded up a winding, traffic-clogged road to the hillside cemetery. There, with head bowed, he stood under an open tent behind the Kopechnes through a brief last prayer commending Mary Jo's soul to God. When he looked up, his eyes were wet.
It was apparently on Thursday—two days after the funeral—that Kennedy finally decided on his course of action. The stream of counselors flowing in and out of Jack Kennedy's old house in the compound thickened, McNamara conspicuously among them—and some Kennedy-watchers thought the saw his hand in Teddy's decision to plead guilty rather than fight the charge. New lawyers joined Marshall, among them Robert Clark Jr. and his son Robert III, who are widely thought to be the best motor-vehicle lawyers in the state. A Boston newspaper photographer, hired to photograph Chappaquiddick from the air and on the ground, delivered his blow-ups that day. The circle debated when to speak, what to say, how to field the criminal complaint of leaving the scene and how best to try to salvage Teddy's future; at least one old Kennedy hand thought he ought to hang on only till his present term runs out next year and then, as gracefully as possible, retire from politics for good. The last conference ran on till midnight Thursday and settled the scenario. The word was flashed to Edgartown: Teddy would be down next morning to enter a plea.
A chill, driving rain was drumming on the 111-year-old Edgartown courthouse when Teddy appeared with Joan and Steve Smith and took his place in the dock. After his plea he sat with downcast eyes while Arena, the sole witness, briefly recounted the accident. "I would be most interested in determining … if there was a deliberate effort to conceal the identity of the defendant," Judge James A. Boyle asked. "Not to my knowledge, Your Honor," Arena replied. There were no further questions, and the judge had only to ratify the prearranged two-month suspended sentence—a routine penalty for first offenders in the state. (Kennedy's only other known driving arrests were the four from his law-school days, three on minor speeding charges, the fourth after a 90-mile-an-hour police chase through Charlottesville, and none of them more recent than 1959.) "He has already been and will continue to be punished far beyond anything this court can impose," intoned the judge; the clerk read the sentence, Teddy murmured "Thank you," and the case of Massachusetts v. Edward Moore Kennedy was closed.
Tremors: But the reverberations went on—and they altered the entire landscape of U.S. politics. Republicans could scarcely believe their good fortune. At a closed-door luncheon of the Senate GOP Policy Committee early in the week, Minority Leader Everett Dirksen admonished his colleagues to keep their thoughts to themselves lest they seem to be playing politics with a tragic situation. "It's in the Lord's hands," said Dirksen. But the cloakrooms buzzed with nothing else. One senior Republican senator thought, to his confessed great relief, that the episode destroyed Kennedy not only as a candidate for President but as his party's No. 1 campaigner as well. "How can any Democratic candidate even think of asking Teddy to campaign for him?" he asked. "Every time he shows up, there will be someone in the crowd with a placard reading, 'What about Mary Jo?'"
The obvious political beneficiary, Maine's Sen. Edmund Muskie, on a party fund-raising trip, told newsmen roughly what Democrats around the country were saying for the record: that Teddy's TV statement was "straightforward" and that it was vastly premature to sign his political death certificate. But many Democratic higher-ups were privately inclined to do precisely that. "Kennedy's finished," groused one top Indiana Democrat. "We haven't got a candidate for 1972." Gloom palled a Senate Democratic campaign committee luncheon. "It's a financial catastrophe," said one member. "Ted's the only speaker we've got who can sell every goddamn $25 ticket to a 2,000-plate dinner." Some colleagues feared the crisis may hopelessly have compromised his standing as Senate majority whip—the No. 2 leadership post he captured only six month ago—and, with it, his pivotal role in the impending battles for tax reform and against the Safeguard ABM. But the stakes were higher still. "I'll tell you what this means," groaned one top Democratic strategist. "It means there will never be another Kennedy in the White House—and Richard Nixon now has an eight-year ticket for the White House."
Teddy, of course, was gambling otherwise. Until the night of July 18, his nomination for President in 1972 was widely accepted as a virtual fait accompli, whether or not he was ready to seek it. The events since had altered all that: he could only retire to home base, try to put together as impressive a re-election victory as he could next year and bank everything on the notoriously short memory of the electorate and the extraordinary magic of the Kennedy name and style. Pro-Kennedy pols wistfully recalled how Mr. Nixon had talked his way out of that slush-fund jam and how nelson Rockefeller had come at least part-way back after his divorce and remarriage. "The man runs, he wins—and suddenly it becomes a quiet issue," said one Minnesota Democratic leader. But even the most sanguine Kennedy loyalists now were talking about 1976 or later—if in fact he could earn his way back at all.
'Never the Same': Some privately thought that he could not—that he might continue as a senator but that any serious prospect off the Restoration had vanished during those 10 hours in which the last Kennedy was put cruelly to a test of nerve and, by his own confession, flunked it. "It's my feeling," one Democratic senator long friendly with the Kennedys told NEWSWEEK's Samuel Shaffer, "that he'll stay in the Senate—it's a club and they'll rally round him—and I think he'll come back less as the gay Lothario and the guy on the white horse and more of a human being. He'll never be the same again. He'll go through life haunted by the ghost of that girl. Every morning he'll have to face himself in the mirror, and it won't be easy. But once this Presidential thing is eradicated, he will live better with himself." And much as it pained him, the senator had little doubt that the Presidential thing was indeed eradicated for Teddy Kennedy. "All the king's horses and all the king's men cannot bring him to the White House now," he said dolefully. "I think we have finally come to the end of Camelot."