Mary Jo Kopechne, 1962 college yearbook photo
[Ted] Kennedy's family legacy seemed to assure him a competitive candidacy for the presidency -- but for a fatal mistake on July 18, 1969. Following a dutiful appreciation party for the "boiler room girls" who had worked on his brother Robert's campaign, Kennedy drove his car off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts. Although Kennedy managed to escape, his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. Furthermore, Kennedy did not report the incident immediately. Later, he pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. Chappaquiddick seemed to quash Kennedy's presidential prospects.
This is an extremely sanitized version of the story. There are many resources available that go into much more detail.
Here is Kennedy's explanation of what happened 44 years ago:
Edward M. Kennedy: "Chappaquiddick"
Broadcast nationally from Joseph P. Kennedy's home on 25 July 1969
My fellow citizens:
I have requested this opportunity to talk to the people of Massachusetts about the tragedy which happened last Friday evening. This morning I entered a plea of guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident. Prior to my appearance in court it would have been improper for me to comment on these matters. But tonight I am free to tell you what happened and to say what it means to me.
On the weekend of July 18, I was on Martha's Vineyard Island participating with my nephew, Joe Kennedy -- as for thirty years my family has participated -- in the annual Edgartown Sailing Regatta. Only reasons of health prevented my wife from accompanying me.
On Chappaquiddick Island, off Martha's Vineyard, I attended, on Friday evening, July 18, a cook-out, I had encouraged and helped sponsor for devoted group of Kennedy campaign secretaries. When I left the party, around 11:15 P.M., I was accompanied by one of these girls, Miss Mary Jo Kopechne. Mary J was one of the most devoted members of the staff of Senator Robert Kennedy. She worked for him for four years and was broken up over his death. For this reason, and because she was such a gentle, kind, and idealistic person, all of us tried to help her feel that she still had a home with the Kennedy family.
There is not truth, not truth whatever, to the widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct that have been leveled at my behavior and hers regarding that evening. There has never been a private relationship between us of any kind. I know of nothing in Mary Jo's conduct on that or nay other occasion -- the same is true of the other girls at that party -- that would lend any substance to such ugly speculation about their character.
Nor was I driving under the influence of liquor.
Little over one mile away, the car that I was driving on the unlit road went of a narrow bridge which had no guard rails and was built on a left angle to the road. The car overturned in a deep pond and immediately filled with water. I remember thinking as the cold water rushed in around my head that I was for certain drowning. Then water entered my lungs and I actual felt the sensation of drowning. But somehow I struggled to the surface alive.
I made immediate and repeated efforts to save Mary Jo be diving into strong and murky current, but succeeded only in increasing my state of utter exhaustion and alarm. My conduct and conversations during the next several hours, to the extent that I can remember them, make no sense to me at all.
Although my doctors informed me that I suffered a cerebral concussion, as well as shock, I do not seek to escape responsibility for my actions by placing the blame either in the physical, emotional trauma brought on by the accident, or on anyone else. I regard as indefensible the fact that I did not report the accident to the policy immediately.
Instead of looking directly for a telephone after lying exhausted in the grass for an undetermined time, I walked back to the cottage where the party was being held and requested the help of two friends, my cousin, Joseph Gargan and Phil Markham, and directed them to return immediately to the scene with me -- this was sometime after midnight -- in order to undertake a new effort to dive down and locate Miss Kopechne. Their strenuous efforts, undertaken at some risk to their own lives also proved futile.
All kinds of scrambled thoughts -- all of them confused, some of them irrational, many of them which I cannot recall, and some of which I would not have seriously entertained under normal circumstances -- went through my mind during this period. They were reflected in the various inexplicable, inconsistent, and inconclusive things I said and did, including such questions as whether the girl might still be alive somewhere out of that immediate area, whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys, whether there was some justifiable reason for me to doubt what has happened and to delay my report, whether somehow the awful weight of this incredible incident might, in some way, pass from my shoulders. I was overcome, I'm frank to say, by a jumble of emotions, grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion and shock.
Instructing Gargan and Markham not to alarm Mary Jo's friends that night, I had them take me to the ferry crossing. The ferry having shut down for the night, I suddenly jumped into the water and impulsively swam across, nearly drowning once again in the effort, and returned to my hotel about 2 A.M. and collapsed in my room.
I remember going out at one point and saying something to the room clerk.
In the morning, with my mind somewhat more lucid, I made an effort to call a family legal advisor, Burke Marshall, from a public telephone on the Chappaquiddick side of the ferry and belatedly reported the accident to the Martha's Vineyard police.
Today, as I mentioned, I felt morally obligated to plead guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident. No words on my part can possibly express the terrible pain and suffering I feel over this tragic incident. This last week has been an agonizing one for me and for the members of my family, and the grief we feel over the loss of a wonderful friend will remain with us the rest of our lives.
These events, the publicity, innuendo, and whispers which have surrounded them and my admission of guilt this morning raises the question in my mind of whether my standing among the people of my state has been so impaired that I should resign my seat in the United States Senate. If at any time the citizens of Massachusetts should lack confidence in their Senator's character or his ability, with or without justification, he could not in my opinion adequately perform his duty and should not continue in office.
The people of this State, the State which sent John Quincy Adams, and Daniel Webster, and Charles Sumner, and Henry Cabot Lodge, and John Kennedy to the United States Senate are entitled to representation in that body by men who inspire their utmost confidence. For this reason, I would understand full well why some might think it right for me to resign. For me this will be a difficult decision to make.
It has been seven years since my first election to the Senate. You and I share many memories -- some of them have been glorious, some have been very sad. The opportunity to work with you and serve Massachusetts has made my life worthwhile.
And so I ask you tonight, the people of Massachusetts, to think this through with me. In facing this decision, I seek your advice and opinion. In making it, I seek your prayers -- for this is a decision that I will have finally to make on my own.
It has been written a man does what he must in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles, and dangers, and pressures, and that is the basis of human morality. Whatever may be the sacrifices he faces, if he follows his conscience -- the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow man -- each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of the past courage cannot supply courage itself. For this, each man must look into his own soul.
I pray that I can have the courage to make the right decision. Whatever is decided and whatever the future holds for me, I hope that I shall have been able to put this most recent tragedy behind me and make some further contribution to our state and mankind, whether it be in public or private life.
Thank you and good night.
Here's an account of the scandal as relayed on PBS's American Experience, "The Kennedys":
Narrator: Friday, July 18, 1969. As the Apollo 11 crew approached the moon, fulfilling a goal set by John Kennedy, Edward Kennedy was in Massachusetts, fulfilling still another family obligation—attending a reunion party of young women who had worked for his brother Robert's last campaign. One of them was Mary Jo Kopechne. The party was held on Chappaquiddick Island, off Martha's Vineyard.
Late that evening, Kennedy left the party with Miss Kopechne. Sometime later, his car
plunged off a narrow wooden bridge. Kennedy managed to get out. His passenger did not. Yet, for 10 hours, he failed to report the accident. The car was discovered by two boys on an early morning fishing trip. Police were summoned and the young woman's body was recovered. The diver suspected she had not died immediately.
Kennedy aides helped the other party-goers leave the island hurriedly, without making
statements. On Saturday morning, Kennedy finally appeared before Police Chief Dominic
Arena and was allowed simply to leave a hastily handwritten statement and return to Hyannis Port.
5th reporter (archival): I mean, wasn't there some point—since someone was killed and he hadn't reported it for 10 hours—in actually questioning him a bit deeper?
Dominic Arena, Police Chief (archival): Right, well—well, to tell you the truth, at the time, I thought I would have been able to get back to him. When he left here, I, at the time, thought that he was going to consult his attorney and we would get further [information] from him.
Rita Dallas, Joseph P. Kennedy's Nurse: After Chappaquiddick, I can still see Eunice flying in the house. She took off her coat and threw it. She said, "Where's Teddy?" She said, "I want to talk to him." But there was rage and horror and anger, a lot of anger at not any particular person, not at Teddy, but, I really think, at fate.
Narrator: The Senator stayed behind the walls of the Kennedy compound. Friends, advisers and former speechwriters descended upon Hyannis Port to offer legal advice and propose ways to salvage the Senator's political future.
Midge Decter, political essayist: An army of Jack's loyalists and speech writers—that court that was still, to some extent, a court-in-exile and still dreaming of Washington—descended on Cape Cod to help him, advise him and to write this speech he gave.
Narrator: Just hours before going on television, Senator Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month jail sentence—suspended. That night, Kennedy offered his version of what had happened, calling his own conduct "indefensible."
Edward M. Kennedy (archival): I would understand full well why some might think it right for me to resign. You and I share many memories. Some of them have been glorious, some have been very sad. The opportunity to work with you and serve Massachusetts has made my life worthwhile and so, I ask you tonight—the people of Massachusetts—to think this through with me.
Narrator: Massachusetts rallied to the last of the Kennedy brothers, but across the country, many found his explanations inadequate, his speech mawkish.
Hays Gorey, Time Magazine: Many of us in the press corps thought it reminded us of Nixon's "Checkers" speech. It did not ring true. It was highly political and intended, obviously, to save his political neck.
Pierre Salinger, White House Press Secretary: I think that Ted Kennedy was very badly advised, very badly advised by those who went to advise him. I mean, instead of putting it in the context of the future of his political life, they should have just put it in the context of what happened and had him deal with what happened in the most honest and open way possible.
Narrator: As the story of Chappaquiddick unfolded, Democratic leaders were meeting in Virginia to discuss the next presidential campaign.
Sen. Fred Harris, U.S. Senate 1964-73: Everybody knew - well, they thought—that Ted Kennedy would be the Democratic nominee for president in 1972. Right in the midst of that retreat came the terrible news of the tragedy at Chappaquiddick.
We stopped what we were doing. The issues were still there, but there was no question, from that moment on. Ted Kennedy would not be the Democratic nominee. The situation changed totally and we simply quit and went home.
Rita Dallas, Joseph P. Kennedy's Nurse: Teddy went upstairs and he said, "Dad, there was an accident." And he said, "There was a girl in the car," and he said, "She drowned." He said, "It was an accident."
And his father had his head forward, listening to Teddy and then, he dropped his head back. And Teddy sat down and he put his hands up to his face and he said, "I don't know, Dad, I don't know." But after that, I could see a deterioration in Mr. Kennedy.
Narrator: Joseph P. Kennedy, 81, refused nourishment and began to waste away. He died on November 18, 1969.
Even decades ago, Democrats/Leftists were forgiven. They were given a pass. They were excused.
Nothing to see here.
Had she lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 73 on July 26.
She died at the age of 28.