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The Chappaquiddick Incident refers to the personal history of Senator Edward Kennedy, and his direct involvement in the death of former assistant to Robert Kennedy, Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy and Kopechne were in a car accident in the early hours of July 19, 1969, when Kennedy drove over the side of a small bridge called Dike Bridge, on Chappaquiddick Island, a smaller island located next to the larger Martha’s Vineyard.
Unfortunately, the car sunk after the crash, and while Kennedy was able to swim safely to shore, Ms. Kopechne was trapped in the vehicle and subsequently died. The major problem with this incident was that Kennedy failed to report his accident, Mary Jo’s death, or even to contact the police for help until the next morning. In fact, Kennedy did not report the incident until after the car was found, which to many suggests he might not have reported it at all, if the car had been found several days later.
The crash and death of Mary Jo Kopechne resulted in Kennedy receiving a suspended sentence of two months for leaving the scene of the accident after causing injury. He also lost his license for a year, and personally paid $90,000 US Dollars (USD) to Ms. Kopechne’s family. He was investigated for more serious crimes related to the Chappaquiddick Incident, including a possible DUI, which could not be proven, and the potential that he or someone else had murdered Ms. Kopechne and deliberately driven off the bridge to hide her murder. Review of the known facts, and the Kopechne family’s refusal to exhume Ms. Kopechne’s body for further study halted such investigation.
To date, Senator Kennedy insists that he was not driving under the influence, and that a wrong turn, and a poorly lighted bridge resulted in the crash. Nevertheless, he takes full responsibility for leaving the scene, failing to report to the police, and possibly by his inaction causing Ms. Kopechne’s death. He reports that he was shocked, panicked, confused and exhausted and his actions were totally inappropriate. He did not attempt to justify his actions and pled guilty to charges against him.
There have been a number of interpretations of the Chappaquiddick incident, and conspiracy theories swirl around it. Some believe Kennedy’s story implicitly, while others believe Kennedy deliberately was attempting to hide the death of Ms. Kopechne by causing the accident on purpose. The Chappaquiddick incident did not result in personal liability lawsuits by Ms. Kopechne’s family, who believed that to sue for money would be to accept blood money. There are some that believe that the wealth, power and influence of the Kennedy family was brought to bear in both the investigatory procedure, subsequent sentencing of Kennedy, and in the Kopechne family’s decision not to press charges.
While theories abound regarding the Chappaquiddick incident, there are several things that clearly resulted from it. First, the Chappaquiddick incident certainly marred Kennedy’s political career. Prior to the incident, many believed that Kennedy would seek the presidential nomination in 1972. The scandal related to the crash effectively squelched any chance of his running. Senator Kennedy did run for president against incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980, but his bid was unsuccessful, and many believe his run prevented Carter from re-election, though it should be stated that Carter was very unpopular by the middle of his four-year term as president.
There are people who continue to insist that wealth and power hid the true meaning of the Chappaquiddick incident, and that Senator Kennedy got away with murder. Others defend Senator Kennedy with great force. Certainly his senate career has been marked by his liberal approach, his advocacy for the poor, and his seemingly tireless efforts to assist the poor and the middle class. He is a highly respected member of the US Senate, even by many who politically oppose his policies.