Today would have been Mary Jo Kopechne’s 80th birthday.
Of course, Mary Jo didn’t even make it to 29 – she died on July 18, 1969, when Sen. Ted Kennedy drunkenly drove his mother’s 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont off a small bridge into a tidal pond on Chappaquiddick on Martha’s Vineyard.
Teddy, drunk and with an expired driver’s license, swam to safety and didn’t bother to even report the death (by suffocation, not drowning) for 10 hours. By then he’d already made more than a dozen long-distance phone calls off the island, including one to another of his girlfriends in Palm Beach.
He’d also enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the Shiretown Inn in Edgartown. Later, when Teddy finally sat down in the Edgartown police chief’s office, shakily filling out the incident report, he left a blank space next to the words “Mary Jo” – he didn’t even know her last name.
If it hadn’t been for Mary Jo Kopechne, Ted Kennedy might very well have become president, if not in 1972, then sometime later.
Mary Jo Kopechne’s death, horrific as it was, spared the nation for what would have no doubt been a disastrous second Kennedy presidency. Chappaquiddick didn’t end the “dynasty” – look at Teddy’s great nephew, U.S. Rep. JoJoJo Kennedy, now running for the U.S. Senate amidst a barrage of TV spots decrying “insiders” in Washington.
A Kennedy would know something about “insiders,” wouldn’t he?
Richard Nixon was president in 1969, and he feared that Teddy would be his opponent in 1972.
He had good reason to be apprehensive — the assassination of his two older brothers was still fresh in everyone’s minds, and the Kennedys had already stolen one presidential election from Nixon, in 1960.
But Teddy was the runt of the litter, as Nixon and everyone else in politics knew. In the Oval Office, even after Chappaquiddick, President Nixon would often talk about the sole surviving brother.
“The thing to do is watch him,” he told his aide John Ehrlichman, “because what happens to fellows like that, who have that kind of a problem, is that they go for quite a while … And they’ll break open.”
And who better to break open with than Mary Jo Kopechne? Everything about her screamed Kennedy girlfriend.
Mary Jo’s first boss in Washington had been Sen. George Smathers, who used to chase women with JFK both in Washington and in Havana, pre-Castro. Her landlord was Bobby Baker, a bagman for Senate Democrats who was also a procurer for D.C. pols — in 1963, Baker delivered the East German beauty (and possible spy) Ellen Rometsch to JFK at the White House.
Later Mary Jo went to work for Sen. Bobby Kennedy. They became this close, and after her death, Ethel Kennedy had to issue a statement calling her “a sweet, wonderful girl.”
That wasn’t enough to put the rumors to rest.
And Teddy himself, in his nationally televised address after the motor-vehicle charges against him had been broomed, recited the words Ted Sorensen had written for him: “There is no truth whatever to the widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct that have been leveled at my behavior and hers.”
Mary Jo had not been wearing underwear at the time of her death. Her blood-alcohol level was .09. Her body was rushed off the island and buried in Pennsylvania before an autopsy could be performed. Months later, the Kennedys went to court to halt the exhumation of her body.
It would later be reported that one of the top gossip columnists in Washington, Maxine Cheshire, had sold the National Enquirer a thoroughly confirmed story that Kopechne had in fact been pregnant when the senator drove his mother’s Oldsmobile off the Dyke Bridge.
According to a book on the National Enquirer, the publisher got cold feet about running a story debunking the Camelot myth. There was a lot of that going around at the time — ask Geraldo Rivera what happened to the ABC “News” documentary he worked on about the strange death of Marilyn Monroe that was abruptly deep-sixed back in the 1980s.
But despite the best efforts of the corrupt media, Teddy could never live down the killing of Mary Jo Kopechne. When he ran for president in 1980, he found himself in a motorcade on the Columbia University campus, driving down Fraternity Row.
Some of the frat boys had hooked up a loudspeaker, and it was blaring a Simon & Garfunkel song: “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
Occasionally, on the anniversary of Mary Jo’s death, Teddy’s Senate office would issue a pro forma statement: “I bear full responsibility for the tragedy and I always will.”
But the Kennedy “legacy” lives on. Teddy’s great-nephew runs for the Senate, his daughter-in-law for Congress in New Jersey. Teddy named his final dog, “Splash,” and now has a giant white elephant of a monument to himself in Dorchester — the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.
The institute features something called the “Senate Immersion Module.” Immersion — you can’t make this stuff up.
Happy 80th birthday, Mary Jo Kopechne.