Sunday, March 25, 2012

#33 Mary Jo Kopechne

Today's post takes me way, way back, to an episode that occurred when I was only 8 years old, yet the name, and the place, are words that I remember. If you are looking to find someone for whom to feel compassion, Mary Jo Kopechne is your girl.

Mary Jo Kopechne, 28,  was the woman who was in the car being driven by Senator Ted Kennedy, that went off a small bridge on Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, in 1969. He escaped the submerged car. She didn't. That's the short, very sanitized, Kennedy-ized version. The truth, like most things related to the Kennedy clan, is a lot uglier. But, let's start at the beginning, and learn a little about who Mary Jo Kopechne was.

Mary Jo was a secretary to Ted Kennedy's brother, Robert Kennedy, around the time Robert was elected to the US Senate. She was one of the six "Boiler Room Girls", so known because they worked in a hot, noisy, windowless room in Robert Kennedy's campaign headquarters. She was close enough to the 'power' that on one occasion she spent a whole night at Hickory Hill, Robert's residence, retyping a speech that he and his staff were revising. Kopechne and the other staffers were knowledgeable politically, and were chosen for their ability to work skillfully for long hours on sensitive matters.

She was devastated by RFK's death in June, 1968. Though she felt she could not return to Capitol Hill after his death, she continued to work in politics. In December, 1968, she worked for one of the first political consulting companies.

According to the New York Times, she was "a devout Roman Catholic with a demure, serious, "convent school" demeanor, rarely drank much, and had no reputation for extramarital activities with men."

On July 18, 1969, Kopechne attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island, off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. The celebration was in honor of the dedicated work of the Boiler Room Girls, and was the fourth such reunion of the Robert F. Kennedy campaign workers.

At approximately 11.15 p.m., she left the party to go back to her lodgings, after agreeing to be driven by Ted Kennedy. For some unknown reason, she left her purse and keys at the party.

According to Kennedy's inquest testimony, he drove towards the bridge, took a wrong turn, and ended up going off the side of the bridge, into Poucha Pond.

He managed to get out. He claimed that he tried to dive down to rescue Mary Jo about eight times, but was unsuccessful.

He also claimed that he then rested on the side of the pond for about 15 minutes, then made his way back to the house where the party was being held, to get help.

He passed at least four houses on his journey back to the party, but felt no inclination to go to either of them to summon help.

Once he got back to the party, two gentlemen accompanied him back to the waterway; Joseph Gargan, Ted Kennedy's cousin and Paul Markham, a school friend of Gargan's who previously served as the United States Attorney for Massachusetts. They both dove in the water in an attempt to rescue Mary Jo Kopechne, but were unsuccessful. They insisted to Kennedy that the accident had to be reported, but Kennedy became hysterical. They finally agreed to go back to the party to advise Mary Jo's friends what had happened, while Kennedy was to go inform the authorities.

Kennedy then swam the 500 foot channel back to Edgartown, on the other side of the bridge, and returned to his hotel room, where he changed out of his wet clothes and went to sleep.

From Wikipedia:
"Back at his hotel, Kennedy complained at 2:55 a.m. to the hotel owner that he had been awoken by a noisy party. By 7:30 a.m. the next morning he was talking "casually" to the winner of the previous day's sailing race, with no indication that anything was amiss. At 8 a.m., Gargan and Markham joined Kennedy at his hotel where they had a "heated conversation." According to Kennedy's testimony, the two men asked why he had not reported the accident. Kennedy responded by telling them "about my own thoughts and feelings as I swam across that channel ... that somehow when they arrived in the morning that they were going to say that Mary Jo was still alive". The three men subsequently crossed back to Chappaquiddick Island on the ferry, where Kennedy made a series of telephone calls from a pay telephone near the crossing. The telephone calls were to his friends for advice and again, he did not report the accident to authorities." 
John Farrar, the diver who recovered Kopechne's body and captain of the Edgartown Fire Rescue unit, asserted that Kopechne did not die from the vehicle overturn or from drowning, but rather from suffocation, based upon the posture in which he found the body and its position relative to the area of an ultimate air pocket in the overturned vehicle. Farrar also asserted that Kopechne would likely have survived had a more timely attempt at rescue been conducted. Farrar located Kopechne's body in the well of the backseat of the overturned submerged car. Rigor mortis was apparent and her hands were clasping the backseat and her face was turned upward. Farrar testified at the Inquest:
"It looked as if she were holding herself up to get a last breath of air. It was a consciously assumed position. ... She didn't drown. She died of suffocation in her own air void. It took her at least three or four hours to die. I could have had her out of that car twenty-five minutes after I got the call. But he [Ted Kennedy] didn't call."

- testimony of diver John Farrar, Inquest into the Death of Mary Jo Kopechne, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Edgartown District Court. New York: EVR Productions, 1970.
Farrar testified later at the inquest that Kopechne's body was pressed up in the car in the spot where an air bubble would have formed. He interpreted this to mean that Kopechne had survived in the air bubble after the accident, and concluded that...
"Had I received a call within five to ten minutes of the accident occurring, and was able, as I was the following morning, to be at the victim's side within twenty-five minutes of receiving the call, in such event there is a strong possibility that she would have been alive on removal from the submerged car."
Farrar believed that Kopechne "lived for at least two hours down there."

In spite of this testimony, the medical examiner concluded Mary Jo Kopechne died of "accidental drowning". "Accidental" and "drowning", my eye.

For the sake of brevity, I have trimmed this summary of what happened down a great deal. The whole article on Wikipedia has many more details than I have provided here.

That Senator Ted Kennedy (thereafter known as "The Swimmer" in some circles) got away with a mere slap on the wrist - a two-month suspended sentence and a suspended license for approximately 18 months for leaving the scene of an accident causing injury - is a sterling example of the stranglehold and thrall that the Kennedys had over those in power in the 60's. It was almost Mafia-like, the way Ted Kennedy escaped any real punishment for this woman's death.

In the summary about Mary Jo Kopechne on Wikipedia, it lists her political affiliation as "Democrat" . Somehow, I believe that during the two to four hours she spent in that car before she suffocated to death, she probably had a re-think about that.

She is the reason that Ted Kennedy did not campaign for the presidency in 1972 or 1976. He did, however, try for the Democrat nod for 1979, but was beaten by Jimmy Carter.

Not that Carter was the real deal. Far from it. But better him than a murderer to occupy the Oval Office.

Her parents did not pursue civil proceedings against Kennedy, fearing they would be accused of going after "blood money".

Kennedy died in 2009, and I imagine he is STILL at the Pearly Gates, trying to spin what he'd done.

This 28 year old woman, with her life ahead of her, died, essentially at the hands of Senator Ted Kennedy. Whether she was in a position to embarrass him politically, or what his motivation was, God only knows.

For her, I have only the greatest compassion. To have been merely living her life, forging a career as she had, and to then die such a terrible, avoidable, rescuable death... it's so difficult to rationalize. The only thing we have to be grateful for is that the incident ruined him. He continued to be a senator - Massachusetts was under the Kennedy spell - but he would never achieve what he could have, and that, my friends, is karma at its finest.

Rest in peace, Mary Jo. "Vengeance is mine" sayeth the Lord, and I have faith that he's exacting your revenge.


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