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POTOMAC PLACE

The Chappaquiddick Effect

Chappaquiddick, Friday, July 18, 1969, I well remember that day as if it were yesterday. A new movie by that name now brings that story to those not living at that time or too young to remember that event.

In Washington, D.C., the weather was unusually comfortable, relatively mild and sunny with minimum humidity. I took a taxi from my midtown office to the Watergate office building in Foggy Bottom to the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee to meet with Mark Shields, then a political campaign strategist. We talked for a few minutes and then left the building and walked under the “K” Street Freeway to Chadwick’s, a popular bar and restaurant in Georgetown.

At lunch, we talked about the state of the nation under the new Nixon administration and the potential Democratic presidential candidates who might have a chance to beat him in 1972. I had been an advance man for President Johnson and Vice President Humphrey and Mark had served in the same capacity for Senator Robert Kennedy (D-NY). His wife, Anne, had worked on Robert Kennedy’s staff. We both agreed that Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME), who had been Hubert Humphrey’s running-mate, had a fair shot for the nomination. Mark would eventually work on his behalf during the 1972 primaries. There also was Senator George McGovern (D-SD), who would eventually get the nomination. At that time, however, we didn’t think he had a chance. In our view, the nomination was a “done deal” for Senator Edward M. “Teddy” Kennedy (D-MA), should he decide to make the race.

We finished our beers and cheeseburgers and walked back to Mark’s office. After we fixed a date when he and Anne could spend the weekend at our place in North Bethany, Delaware, I took a taxi back to my office.

When I arrived back at the office there was a message to call Mark. I did. He grabbed the phone on the first ring. Mark, always self-assured, as those who see him on PBS every Friday evening know, was anything but this time. He told me what he had learned. It was a hazy story about a place called Chappaquiddick on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. A place where a girl named Mary Jo, who had worked with Anne Shields on Bobby Kennedy’s staff, had died in an auto accident earlier that morning. Teddy Kennedy was the driver. That was all he knew.

For the next few weeks that was all we would know. Unlike Mary Jo Kopechne, the story would not die. Mary Jo had drowned in the shallow water of Poucha Pond when Kennedy’s car went off Dike Bridge, a short, narrow, and unlit wooden structure lacking guard rails. Kennedy had made it out of the car and left the scene. His story was questionable then, and still is now. Kennedy had told Dominick Arena, the Edgartown police chief, that the accident happened on Thursday evening at 11:15 p.m., but he had waited until 9:30 a.m. on Friday morning to report it.

Bob Clark (Robert G. Clark, Jr.), a friend of mine from Georgetown Law School, who lived in the dormitory town house next to mine, represented Kennedy in the Edgartown court before Judge James A. Boyle. Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, and Boyle accepted the agreement that Clark had worked out to suspend the sentence of two months in the Barnstable Jail. It might have been the best lawyering that Bob would do in his long and distinguished career, although it was never mentioned in his May, 2013 obituary.

Chappaquiddick killed Ted Kennedy’s chances for the presidential nomination in 1972 and forever weakened him as a political figure. But by the end of the 1970’s, Kennedy’s popularity had strengthened due in part to his leadership on social issues in the U.S. Senate and the weakened position and unpopularity of the incumbent President James E. “Jimmy” Carter.

Kennedy’s popularity rang true for me in a personal experience in 1979 on the occasion of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the White House on October 6th. Having previously represented the Pauline Fathers, a Polish order and the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and in addition to my fund raising efforts on behalf of President Carter, my wife, Mary-Margaret and I were invited to the White House ceremony on the south lawn along with a few hundred others. We had seats close up. Sitting to our right was U.S. District Court Judge John Sirica, who had presided over the prosecution of the Watergate case defendants, and to our left three young Polish-American priests from Detroit, a city which then had a large Polish-American population.

It was an exciting day, all of us gawking at the familiar faces of numerous and distinguished people from politics, finance, the arts, theater, television and film. The crowd was abuzz in anticipation of seeing the Pontiff close up. The good mood spurred greetings and extended conversations. At some point in my conversations with Sirica and the priests, one of the priests mentioned that he thought that President Carter was weak on foreign policy and that he planned to support Ted Kennedy.

I pondered his words briefly and responded irreverently: “Father, with all due respect, how could you support that man who had left that sweet Polish-American girl Mary Jo Kopechne to drown in Chappaquiddick?”

He lowered his head and raising it, smiled slightly and responded, “Have you no forgiveness in your heart?”

At that moment, I knew that memories were short, that Chappaquiddick had faded, and that Jimmy Carter’s days might be numbered.
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