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The Chappaquiddick Incident

It happened July 18, 1969 on Chappaquiddick Island near Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. On this night, most people were at home glued to their television sets watching reports of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. Not Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy though. If he had been at home watching the news reports, Ted Kennedy may have been one of our US Presidents. However, an incident at Chappaquiddick Island derailed those plans.

Ted Kennedy and his cousin Joe Gargan hosted a party on the exclusive island. It was a reunion party for a woman named Mary Jo Kopechne and five other women who worked on the 1968 presidential campaign of the late Senator Robert Kennedy. Senator Ted Kennedy was the seemingly front-runner to the upcoming 1972 presidential nomination, and that changed after the accident. Ted Kennedy left the party with Mary Jo Kopechne when he accidentally drove off a wooden bridge and into a tide-swept pond. The senator was able to escape the submerged car but Kopechne was not and she subsequently drowned. The problem came when Kennedy left the accident scene and did not report it until about ten hours later.

Ted Kennedy said that they were heading to the ferry slip to get back to their hotel rooms in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. Kennedy, driving down the main road for a while, turned onto the unpaved Dike Road and then missed the ramp to a wooden bridge and drove into Poucha Pond. The married senator said the turn onto Dike Road was a mistaken wrong turn, however he and Mary Jo Kopechne had gone down this same road before which leads to a secluded ocean beach. Mary Jo also left her room key and her purse at the party.

Kennedy had escaped the car and said he dove into the water to try and help Kopechne and when that failed, he went back to the party and enlisted the help of his cousin, Joe Gargan and another friend of theirs. The three men were unsuccessful as well. All three of them then went to the ferry slip and Kennedy dove into the water and swam to Edgartown, about a mile away from the island. Returning to his room at the Shiretown Inn, Senator Kennedy changed his clothes and at 2:25 a.m., stepped out of his room and saw the innkeeper, Russell Peachy. He told Peachy he had been awakened by noise in the room next to his and then asked the innkeeper what time it was and then returned to his room. In a 1988 interview with Joe Gargan, Gargan said that Kennedy planned to let people think that Mary Jo Kopechne was the sole driver and passenger of the vehicle. However, the next morning, Kennedy reported the accident to Edgartown police chief Dominick Arena and said that he was in fact the driver of the vehicle.

On July 25, just seven days after the fatal accident, Senator Edward Kennedy pleaded guilty to charges of leaving the scene of an accident. He received a two-month suspended jail sentence and his driver’s license was suspended for a year. That evening, Kennedy went on television to talk about the incident and he said the delaying of the reporting of the accident was “indefensible”. He also denied any allegations of being involved romantically or otherwise with Kopechne. Kennedy then asked his constituents if he should continue his political endeavors. He received a favorable response and resumed his senatorial duties at the end of a month. Kennedy kissed any hopes of being president after the incident but did come close to receiving the nomination in 1980 but was beaten out by the incumbent President Jimmy Carter, who proceeded to lose the presidential office to Ronald Reagan.

Kennedy remained a senator until his death in 2009.

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