Mary Jo Kopechne died 50 years ago. But then the anniversary of her death is not one of the things routinely remembered this week. Much preferable for most of us has been the 50th anniversary of our landing on the moon, during which Western Civilization hit an absolute zenith.
If you were listening or watching news 50 years ago on radio or TV, you were splitting your attention between the moon landing ("whooo boy" said Walter Cronkite taking his glasses off and momentarily transforming himself from veteran reporter to cheerleader for the human species) and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.
That death, though, went by another name that has, as history has advanced, superseded the name of the ardent 28-year-old Kennedy loyalist and functionary who died that night. That name is "Chappaquiddick," the Massachusetts island where it happened.
That's where we were told Teddy Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile 88 off narrow, one-lane Pike Bridge into Poucha Pond and swam free, leaving Kopechne to die under circumstances that --according to some -- are still almost unendurable to read.
According to diver John Farrar, who rescued her lifeless body from the back seat of the submerged car, she was breathing from an air pocket and was alive at least three or four hours before the air ran out.
During that time, Kennedy swam free, went back to the cottage he'd rented for a party of mostly married men and single women and told a couple of male friends/associates what happened. They all raced back to the car in hopes of saving her.
Everything about Chappaquiddick is excruciating to read and think about. It begins with the party where six young women were going to party down with the older, mostly married Kennedy-ites. The young women had been backbone boiler room members of Bobby Kennedy's presidential run until his horrific assassination in that hotel kitchen. Chappaquiddick's grim tale continues until everything about the events sounds like the worst possible ending to an ancient American ritual where privileged men on a July night enjoy the company of women who are presumed a perk of their privileged male lives.
Ted Kennedy later referred to his activities that night as "indefensible." They "made no sense to me at all," he later said.
He didn't report the accident until 10 hours after it happened. He claimed not to have been drunk, but anyone who has ever been drunk knows that if you were, you'd want to spend 10 hours sobering up before you'd want to try talking to cops.
Kennedy's wife, Joan, was pregnant at the time of her husband's fatal party.
When he explained himself on TV right afterward, he ended by quoting from his brother's book "Profiles in Courage." This was a profile of something else altogether.
He pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. Because he was Teddy Kennedy, he was sentenced to two months suspended. Try, if you can, to imagine how he'd have been treated in our time by media and authorities if his last name weren't Kennedy and his brothers hadn't been assassinated and it all happened a couple days ago.
That week 50 years ago split us up the middle. Half of us revered the family and felt humanity's long slow climb up out of the primordial ooze had hit a zenith with the moon landing. The other half thought the family we thought of as our democracy's aristocracy had destroyed forever its hope of being a major political influence.
It turned out America significantly still had two minds back then about male toxicity. Teddy Kennedy had a long Senate career after all -- one during which many called him one of the great figures in the institution's history. The significance of that is something we all have to interpret for ourselves.
In 2019, we're not hearing convincing Western Civilization calls for greatness all that often -- not when mere decency and intelligence seem in such hideously short supply. In space, our leaders want, above all, a "space force," a military branch with astral billy clubs performing "Star Wars" derring-do.
In 2019, we are submerged up to our eyebrows in the misdeeds of public males -- politicians, media figures, powerful functionaries. The subjects of male power and toxicity are newly reckoned with daily and are radically remaking the ways men and women think about themselves.
You could argue that Chappaquiddick began all that.
I was a first generation Kennedy loyalist from 1960. When Jack ran for president that year, I was a sophomore in a private all-male high school whose population could safely be presumed Nixonian, if anything at all. There were 48 guys in my class. A grand total of three of us publicly endorsed Kennedy in our sophomoric ways. (We wore "Kennedy for President" campaign buttons inside the lapels of our jackets and revealed them smugly when passing each other in the halls. It must have felt something like that to the early Christians who drew pictures of fish in the dirt to identify themselves.)
The Kennedy and King assassinations completely unmoored me from faith in political action. Chappaquiddick completely ended my belief Ted Kennedy would be able to pick up where his slain older brothers left off.
Ten years later CBS' Roger Mudd interviewed Kennedy when he seemed to be challenging Jimmy Carter for the nomination. Mudd later said, "I don't want to be known ... as the man who brought Teddy Kennedy down."
He's right. He wasn't. Kennedy did that to himself. Mudd merely asked him primitively obvious things. Kennedy answered and continued to speak of his actions that horrible night as "the conduct."
Not "my conduct" or "what I did." But the conduct, as if he were a writer referring to some minor newsmaker from another state. (Joyce Carol Oates' novel about Chappaquiddick was called "Black Water.")
The conduct is how we usually perceive the doings of our pols now -- hopelessly idealistic at best, marginally human all too often and far too frequently a disgrace to them and us and American history.
The moon landing told us things we desperately wanted to hear about ourselves. Chappaquiddick told us ghastly things no one wanted to know but, God help us, we all needed to.