Kennedy lucky to survive shame of Chappaquiddick

If there were a Richter scale for measuring scandals, Chappaquiddick would score very high. A young woman drowned when, late in the evening on July 18 1969, Senator Edward Kennedy drove his car off a bridge into a pond on this little Massachusetts island.

Mary Jo Kopechne had asked the Democratic senator for a lift back to her hotel from an alcohol-fuelled party in a country cottage. He claimed later to have made a wrong turn and ended up with his car upside down in water, with Mary Jo trapped inside it.

While he claimed to have made several unsuccessful attempts to save her, he didn’t summon any help and he didn’t report the incident to the police until the next day, after others had discovered her body. Instead, he spent the time figuring out how to minimise the consequences for himself. This included talking to Mary Jo’s parents, who later accepted a gift of $90 000 from him.

A week later Kennedy was given a two-month suspended sentence after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. At the inquest some months later, a judge concluded that Kennedy had told lies about the affair. He had never intended to drive Mary Jo back to her hotel, the judge said, and he had driven on to the bridge intentionally.

Kennedy denied that he had engaged in ”immoral conduct” with Mary Jo, though such conduct would not have been uncharacteristic. (A few years earlier, meeting Kennedy for the first time at a party in London, a Cambridge friend of mine was startled to be asked if he could procure him a girl.)

It might seem tasteless of me to recall these events at a time when Kennedy has been diagnosed with possibly fatal brain cancer. But the incident has gone almost unmentioned in the American press surveys of his long political career. You would think from them, and from the glowing tributes that have been bestowed on him by colleagues and enemies alike, that he had lived a life of unblemished virtue. He is being lauded as the greatest public servant that his famous family has produced.

That is probably true, but it is remarkable that he has had to pay so small a price for his actions on that ghastly day. In 1963, John Profumo lied to the House of Commons (shock, horror!) about his liaison with a prostitute and was cast out of politics for good. A decade later, another British government minister, Lord Lambton, was photographed in the News of the World in bed with a couple of prostitutes and spent the rest of his life in exile.

Since then, misconduct of one kind or another has ended the political careers of Jeffrey Archer, David Mellor, Ron Davies, and Mark Oaten, though nothing any of them did compared in gravity with Chappaquiddick. Kennedy only narrowly avoided prosecution for manslaughter, yet he continued to serve in the US Senate for more than 40 years, winning admiration for his work on healthcare, education and civil rights.

United States President George Bush this week said he was ”a man of tremendous courage, remarkable strength, and powerful spirit”, and another political opponent, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, called him ”one of the most important figures to ever serve in this body in our history”.

Kennedy may have earned his redemption, but it is difficult to imagine that in this country he would ever have been allowed the chance to do so. We are less ready to pardon than the Americans.

The Queen is routinely described in the press as being ”angry” or ”dismayed” about something or other, but it would be surprising if she hadn’t been genuinely so about the £500 000 paid by Hello! magazine to her grandson Peter Phillips for the exclusive coverage of his wedding.

For it is perfectly obvious that Hello! would not have dreamt of paying that kind of money to photograph the wedding of this unremarkable young man to his Canadian sweetheart if it had been held anywhere other than at Windsor in the presence of the royal family. What Phillips in effect did was to shop his famous relations to the magazine.

Since Hello! can make anybody famous, Phillips and his wife, Autumn Kelly, may now have clambered on to the bottom rung of the celebrity ladder and be worth a few bob in their own right. But it’s clear from the magazine’s many pages of pictures that its main interest this week was in snapping those who were already famous, in particular the glamorous royal Wags, Kate Middleton and Chelsy Davy, who are normally jealous of their privacy.

It is claimed that neither they nor the Queen knew they were to be victims of this shoddy deal; and, if true, that suggests great incompetence and/or disloyalty by palace officials who are supposed to be ever-vigilant in protecting the royal dignity.

It has also been claimed that the Phillips family needed the money to pay for this extravaganza, which, if true, suggests suicidal parsimony on the part of the bridegroom’s relations.

But what this episode shows above all is that if the monarchy cares about its long-term survival, it will have to find ways of distancing itself from minor members of the royal family and keeping them out of the public eye. At the very least, it will have to be firm in preventing them from cashing in on their fortuitous blood ties.

In the meantime, the Queen has a way of retaining a semblance of dignity under even the most embarrassing of circumstances, which she does by looking as if she’s hating every minute of it. – Â

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