Fixer: The rehabilitation of Edward Kennedy

Nobody knows what happened at Chappaquiddick, and Ted Kennedy was never really trusted afterwards. But in his later years came a remarkable redemption, writes veteran reporter Fred Emery
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The Independent Online

Teddy Kennedy is benefiting in death far more than Richard Nixon did, by being judged on his whole life and achievements – and not just by the scandal that settled each man's presidential destiny. Nixon paid for Watergate by losing his dearest possession, presidential office. Kennedy was never to be president because at Chappaquiddick he panicked and left a young woman to drown – after which he was never again fully trusted.

Yet enough voters in his home state of Massachusetts were in thrall both to the Kennedy mystique and to his mid-life conversion to exceptional social legislation that they returned him for 47 years, and he is bid farewell as the lion of the US Senate.

He is not only, in terms of his achievements, the most "consequential Kennedy", as he has already been dubbed; he was also the most fascinating study in human failing, defiant self-belief and self-protection – by birth and family influence far more above the law than ever Nixon could have dreamed.

By the time I was covering Washington in 1970, Kennedy again got re-elected in Massachusetts, though his vote was down by half a million. Soon afterwards he lost the senior Democratic Party position as Senate majority whip and seemed to be losing his way.

When I met him professionally I, like most others, men and women alike, was struck by his innate personal charm. In this he was more Clinton than Clinton, and it doubtless eased his way. The aftermath of Chappaquiddick was still very much alive. There had been an inquest that year into the death of Mary Jo Kopechne – typically held in secret at the insistence of Kennedy's lawyers. The inquest report, later made public, revealed that Kennedy had not been truthful, that negligent driving had been established. But a follow-up grand jury returned no indictment, and Kennedy escaped with his original guilty plea of leaving the scene of an accident. He was given a two-month suspended sentence and lost his driving licence for 12 months.

Years later, grand jury members complained of a cover-up, and the chief of the Edgartown volunteer fire department, who retrieved the body before Kennedy reported the accident, said he believed Kopechne had lived for two hours in an air bubble. He claimed he was never allowed to explain this at the inquest.

The Kennedy clan's culture, from both grandfathers onwards, of fixing things in the case of politics, finance and women very much to their own advantage, and never mind legal niceties, was the inherited wisdom by the time Teddy, the ninth child, came along. Joseph, his father, like most ambassadors to the Court of St James, secured the post with significant campaign contributions, even if his bet on Hitler beating Britain left Franklin D Roosevelt unimpressed. The last Kennedy went to too many schools and was such an uninspired student at Harvard that he paid a brighter friend to sit his Spanish exam. He was found out and sent down. The event was typically covered up for 10 years.

There was the greater matter of the 1960 White House victory of brother Jack, widely believed (not least by Nixon) to have been stolen in Illinois ballot-rigging through the aegis of the late Chicago mayor and fellow Irish politico Richard Daley.

When, as a result, Jack's Senate seat fell available, a "seatwarmer" was appointed until 1962, when Teddy reached 30, the minumum age required to gain election. That campaign coincided with a rare public glimpse of Kennedy womanising, with reports that the President had been secretly married once before, and so might be a bigamist. It was instantly denied and never substantiated, but many seasoned observers believed that was because the evidence had been destroyed. Only much much later was it revealed that Kennedy friends in the American press had withheld from the public what they knew of JFK's other affairs.

At this stage Teddy was little more than a family ornament. But after the terrible assassinations of his brothers in 1963 and 1968, he was thrust inevitably into the role of the "last of the Kennedys" – and, with his own father in failing health, became the patriarch of all those bereft children. Heaven knows what emotional damage was wrought then.

In politics at the time his main achievement was to have switched positions from supporting the Vietnam war to outright opposition, echoing his late brother's campaign. (Kennedy was notable in having little difficulty changing his mind: in the Seventies he went from supporting a united Ireland and dubious Noraid fundraising, with demands for British withdrawal from Ulster, to active denunciation of violence and championing of the peace process.)

It was in the summer of 1969 that the party on Chappaquiddick island, near Martha's Vineyard, was staged. Among the guests were campaign staff who had worked so hard for Robert Kennedy, including a number of young women. Ted Kennedy, then 37, attended without his wife, Joan – because she was unwell, he later insisted.

It was 18 July, the weekend of the first manned moon landing. What happened on Chappaquiddick at 11.15pm was that Kennedy drove a car with Kopechne, 28, as his passenger off a bridge into a tidal channel eight feet deep. In the dark Kennedy somehow escaped. He later claimed he had tried to rescue Kopechne and failed. He did not call for help from the police or fire brigade until next morning – nine hours later – after first consulting the family lawyer, and after the body had been located.

His subsequent explanations for what he termed this "indefensible" failure to get professional emergency assistance were widely derided. There was immediate speculation that the couple were on a tryst that went wrong. Kennedy claimed he was giving Kopechne a lift to the Edgartown ferry so she could get to her hotel. He took a car normally driven by his chauffeur. She left her handbag and hotel key behind at the party. The road to the ferry is paved, but Kennedy turned sharply off it into the unpaved dyke road leading to the bridge. The inquest judge found that he had taken this unpaved road deliberately.

A week after he pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident he went on TV to make a self-pitying speech to the people of Massachusetts which, to judge by contemporary media reaction, made things worse. Kennedy specifically denied that he had ever "gone out" with Miss Kopechne or that he had been driving under the influence of alcohol, although he admitted to three drinks. He then revealed an extraordinary tale of a double, if private, rescue attempt, before leaving the woman to her death.

He said he had walked over a mile back to the party, recruited his cousin and a trusted friend to drive back to the bridge with him, and that they then had dived and redived in vain. Finally, urging him to report the accident, they supposedly watched as Kennedy, with the ferry closed, dived into the tidal channel and swam the 500 feet across to Edgartown, where he went to bed in his hotel.

Leaving aside that physical feat, Kennedy claimed the reason he still did nothing about reporting the case was that going through his mind were frenzied thoughts "whether the girl might still be alive somewhere out of that immediate area ... whether there was some justifiable reason for me to doubt what had happened and to delay my report ..." He stated: "I was overcome, I'm frank to say, by a jumble of emotions: grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion and shock." He even added he had wondered whether there was a curse on the Kennedys.

Given that there had been no autopsy, that Mary Jo's parents had opposed this, that they had subsequently accepted $90,000 from Kennedy, and $50,000 from the insurers, it is extraordinary that Kennedy was able, or wanted, to make any kind of comeback. But eventually he did make one bid for the presidency, obeying his brother Jack's command that "if Bobby died Teddy would take over from him".

He did not act hastily, however. In 1972 , Richard Nixon was so convinced his challenger would be his Kennedy nemesis that he put secret surveillance in place. The Watergate private eye Tony Ulasewicz was dispatched by a White House aide, John Ehrlichman, to bring back the local dirt but got nothing more than was already out there.

But Nixon was not fantasising. The Democratic frontrunner, Senator George McGovern, wanted Kennedy to be his vice-presidential running mate, and was turned down twice. Kennedy also considered running in 1976, and finally took the plunge for his last hurrah in 1980, challenging the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, from his own party.

But for once the old magic deserted him; Chappaquiddick would not go away, and the campaign was unusually shambolic. He won the California and New York primaries but it was not enough; the campaign is remembered now only for his rousing convention speech.

There was one further brush with scandal in 1991. Kennedy went out late at night drinking in a Palm Beach bar with a nephew, who took a girl back to the Kennedy estate and who accused him of raping her. There was a lurid trial. The senator was not directly implicated but Time magazine said he was being perceived as a "Palm Beach boozer, lout and tabloid grotesque", while Newsweek said Kennedy was "the living symbol of the family flaws". The nephew was acquitted, with many in the media assuming Kennedy clan influence.

That same year Kennedy met a lawyer who was to become his second wife, and with whom he made a fresh start and a notable public confession: "I am painfully aware that the criticism directed at me in recent months involves far more than disagreements with my positions... [It] involves the disappointment of friends and many others who rely on me to fight the good fight. To them I say, I recognise my own shortcomings – the faults in the conduct of my private life. I realise that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them."

From that last third of his life, distinguished by the hard work he and his expert staff did to get some 300 bills through Congress, dates the growing perception that he proved no one is beyond redemption.

Fred Emery was chief Washington correspondent of The Times from 1970 to 1977, and is the author of the book 'Watergate'