It’s two Catholics — Senator Ted Kennedy and aide Mary Jo Kopechne — who are the focus of a new movie named, simply, Chappaquiddick, as in the scandal that ended Ted’s presidential chances.
The movie raises a number of issues.
So does the opening paragraph of this commentary.
Firstly, some would quibble with the notion that Kennedy was a true Catholic, for in the United States Senate he championed a woman’s “right” to abortion. That’s enough for bishops to deny Communion.
It also brings to the fore the issue of annulments: Senator Kennedy obtained one after a 25-year marriage (he was married by Cardinal Francis Spellman) and three grown children. Why was he given it? That’s probably none of our business, nor for us to question Church authority. But one can ask: If a person can obtain an annulment after such a long marriage, how does that reflect on the current hot-button issue of Communion for the divorced? Some can get annulments and, depending on the diocese (and perhaps influence), some not?
These are just questions, and are not really related to anything in the movie itself, which focuses on several days in 1969, when Kennedy, driving an Oldsmobile on a barrier island on July 18 in Martha’s Vineyard, drove off a narrow bridge in the wee dark hours after a party/cookout.
It’s not in our purview to wonder what the two were doing together. Kopechne came from a very believing Catholic family in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, and no doubt had fine attributes. She had worked for Ted’s brother, Bobby, before, and like his older brother, he was horribly assassinated.
The movie makes it look like Ted callously fled from the scene of the accident at Chappaquiddick and initiated a cover up before reporting the accident nine hours later, implying she may have been saved — Mary Jo, who could not escape; while Ted did — had he sought help sooner.
No one knows that, and the movie besmirches and even defames Kennedy based on no new evidence. It is a dark movie in that regard: artistic license used, for all intents and purposes, in character assassination. As another example: key aides are shown ruthlessly orchestrating a cover up, and Ted’s father Joseph is portrayed as an evil curmudgeon whose only advice to Ted, upon hearing of the accident, was expressed in a single word: “Alibi.” In other words, the movie claims Joe Kennedy told his son to cover it up. There’s no evidence from anyone who could possibly know that this was the case. Kennedy is also accused in the movie of staging a concussion and neck injury. (He eventually died, ironically, of brain cancer.)
Defamation is a serious thing. That’s not to say the senator’s conduct was kosher. He was known, among other things, as a reckless driver, and not averse to a few drinks. Upon viewing the movie, one Kopechne relative, Nelson Potoski, said of Kennedy, “He was always only interested in saving his own neck. We would recommend that people go see the movie to see what that family was all about.” But to the extent portrayed?
A private funeral for Kopechne was held at St. Vincent’s Roman Catholic Church in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, on July 22, 1969. The service was attended by Kennedy, his wife Joan, his sister-in-law Ethel, and hundreds of onlookers. Kopechne was buried in St. Vincent’s Cemetery in Larksville, Pennsylvania, in the parish cemetery on the side of Larksville Mountain. She was among the fifth generation of her family interred in that cemetery. [Photo, the Times Leader]
Putting aside the issue of abortion and divorce, how Catholic was Kennedy?
We have little idea. He went by church rules for personal matters, it seems — otherwise he would not have sought an annulment — and Kennedy weddings and funerals (too many of the latter) were strictly Catholic.
His mother, Rose, the matriarch, was very devout, a daily communicant when she was able, one who was dedicated to the Rosary. Indeed, Bobby died in California in that hotel with rosary beads in hand, and Jack had gone to Confession just before his assassination (we broke that story eighteen years ago).
So there were deep Catholic arteries, and perhaps a bit of spiritual warfare. As the National Post in Canada reported Tuesday, “Among the ‘scrambled thoughts’ that came to a young Ted Kennedy as he stumbled from the water into which he had crashed his Oldsmobile, killing his passenger and crippling his political career, was a sort of existential question, if not a supernatural one.
“The 37-year-old U.S. senator from Massachusetts wondered that night in 1969 whether ‘some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys.’ He recalled the thought aloud one week later in a televised speech, after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of the crash and failing to notify police until morning, as Mary Jo Kopechne died in the water off Chappaquiddick Island.
“Kennedy emphasized the word ‘hang.’
“Then he looked down from the TV camera at his notes, inhaled, and went on with a speech designed to salvage his career.”
We have addressed this before, the notion of the “Kennedy curse.” Air plane crashes (not just one), the assassinations (not just one), sexual allegations (including rape), a charge of murder against a cousin, cancer in a young Kennedy, mental illness (resulting in a lobotomy), divorce, and so forth.
And then Chappaquiddick — which “coincidentally” occurred on the very weekend of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, a mission initiated by President John Kennedy before he died… What do we glean from that?
Mysteries, mysteries, ones that extend beyond what exactly occurred that horrible July night in 1969 in the tidal waters of an Atlantic island.
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