Monday, October 29, 2018

Chappaquicick Will Leave You Frustrated, And That’s A Good Thing: Plus Three Conspiracy Theories

My father was an avid reader, but his choice of reading material often left something to be desired. He especilly enjoyed reading the “tabloids,” so there was always a Weekly World News or National Enquirer around the house for an “inquiring mind” like mine to leaf through. The stock-and-trade of those publications was reporting of semi-fictitious news stories, often with just a hint of truth to make their outlandish conspiracy theories seem plausible. It is no surprise, then, that I have a decent knowledge of Chappaquiddick and the various conspiracy theories surrounding it. That story dominated the tabloids for years, supplanted only half a decade later by the death (and possible resurrection?) of Elvis.

The movie Chappaquiddick tackles the story of that warm summer night in 1969 head on, but leaves the viewer with as many, maybe more, questions at its conclusion than they likely had heading in to the theater. Rather than attach themselves to one theory or another about the tragic events of that night, the filmmakers are content to stick to the official story, along with all the confounding ambiguity and significant gaps it offers. The end result is a film in which the actions of many of the prime characters make little to no sense. If it were a fictional story, this would be a fatal flaw, but the fact that these people actually acted that way makes it fascinating, if frustrating.

The facts of the story are such: Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, a rising star in the Democratic Party and the last surviving Kennedy “brother,” attended a get-together of staffers who had worked for his deceased brother Bobby. The party was held on the tiny Martha’s Vineyard island of Chappaquiddick. The exact nature of this event is open to speculation, but the guests were male Kennedy associates and female staffers in their late-20s, so draw your own conclusions. Around midnight, Kennedy left the party with a woman named Mary Jo Kopechne. Some time later a car driven by Kennedy ran off a small bridge and plunged upside down into the relatively shallow water. Kennedy escaped the wreck, but his passenger did not. After that, things get fuzzy, but the one undeniable fact is that Kennedy waited nine or ten hours before reporting the accident to authorities, and in fact did so only after the car was discovered by two boys out fishing and reported to the police.

All this took place at the same time as the Apollo 11 moon landing, so it understandably got pushed below the fold, but it was still a big story. A week after the incident, Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was sentenced to two months in jail, suspended. He went on television and expressed his regrets for his role in the accident, while telling a highly suspicious story with a lot of holes. A largely sympathetic nation (he had lost his brothers to assassination) was willing to overlook the inconsistencies of the story, and Kennedy went on to be one of the longest-serving U.S. Senators.

When you actually see this story played out in real time on the screen, however, it becomes very obvious very quickly that something is not right. There are massive holes which the movie simply leaves as holes: What were the two doing in his car at midnight? How did Kennedy escape an overturned, flooded car without breaking a window or opening a door? What happened in the nine or ten hours between the time the car entered the water and Kennedy reported the accident? These are not insignificant questions and the lack of resolution will frustrate the viewer, but any attempt by the filmmakers to fill in the blank spaces with conjecture or theory would be a disservice to Kennedy and/or Kopechne.

It is worth noting that a review of the movie in The New York Times calls the film a right-wing scree aimed at denigrating the memory of Senator Kennedy. While I have never been a particularly big fan of the Senator and am probably not the most impartial voice in the matter, that’s bunk. Yes, certain aspects of the film cast Kennedy in an unflattering light, but that will happen when you leave the scene of a fatal accident, can’t remember what happened and fail to report it to the authorities. The Times problem with the film is  apparently that it doesn’t go out if its way to exonerate Kennedy. Let's be clear here, even taken at his word, Kennedy is not a hero or martyr, and the film's suggestion that some political spin and outright lies may have taken place are hardly out of bounds given the circumstances.

There is a conspiracy theory that casts Kennedy in a slightly better light, the so-called “backseat” theory. This theory postulates that Kopechne left the party after having a couple of drinks and fell asleep in the backseat of Kennedy’s car. Kennedy, not knowing anyone was in the car with him, was simply relieved to have survived the accident and figured no harm could come of sleeping it off before reporting the accident to the authorities. But if this was the case, then why not say so. It’s arguably a more plausible story than the one told. Well, that leaves to another conspiracy...

A purse belonging to another staffer named Rosemary Keough was found in the submerged car. In fact, based on this purse, the victim was originally misidentified. The Keough conspiracy theory suggests that Kennedy did indeed leave the party for a tryst, but that it was with Keough, not Kopechne. Kopechne was merely asleep in the backseat, and Kennedy and Keough had no idea she was there until the news hit the next morning that there was a body in the car. While this theory does close a hole or two, it also suggests that two people could enter a car without noticing there was someone asleep in the backseat and that two people could escape a sunken car neatly closing the doors behind them.

A more outlandish conspiracy theory states that none of it was an accident and that it was effectively a “hit” on Kopechne who had some dirt on the Kennedys and in one variation was carrying Ted's baby. This outlandish theory says that Kennedy was never in the car and the whole thing was planned and executed by a team of Kennedy operatives who somehow botched what was supposed to look like an innocent accident. The problem with that theory is that if the intent was to kill Kopechne without raising suspicion, there were much simpler ways to accomplish that which did not implicate the Kennedys; have her “mugged” one night while walking home, for instance.

With the passing of Senator Kennedy in 2009 and most of the eye witnesses either dead or in their latter years, the Chappaquiddick incident will likely go down with the Jonbenet Ramsey murder and the Lindbergh Kidnapping as mysterious tabloid fodder that are never quite resolved.

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