The Chappaquiddick Incident – 1969

The death of Senator Edward Kennedy in August 2009 marked the end of an era in which the Kennedy family dominated American political life. The youngest of nine children of ambitious parents, Edward’s long and distinguished life of public service was marred by personal difficulties and private tragedy, most notably the assassinations of his two older brothers, Jack (JFK) and Robert. Edward had been particularly close to Robert; when the latter was gunned down in June 1968 during his campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for the presidency, his grief was compounded by the enormous weight of expectation that then fell on his shoulders.

One year later, on the night of July 18 1969, Edward, who shared the family taste for living it up, attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island, just off the exclusive Massachusetts retreat of Martha’s Vineyard. At midnight Edward left the party to drive a fellow guest, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, to catch the ferry. Driving at speed, Kennedy missed the road and ran off a bridge into a tidal creek. Kennedy escaped from the capsized car but Kopechne drowned in the accident. Although he claimed to have tried to rescue her, Kennedy’s failure to report the incident for over ten hours and the subsequent inquest held in private led to accusations of a cover-up and public outrage that Kennedy had seemed prepared to put his political career ahead of a young woman’s life.

That career never recovered from Chappaquiddick. Although he remained a member of the US Senate until his death, becoming a conscientious and hugely effective legislator, Edward Kennedy had to abandon any serious aspirations to follow his brothers into high office, a move only underlined by an ill-judged campaign in 1980 for the party’s nomination in which he ran against President Jimmy Carter.

When: July 18-19 1969

Where: Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, USA

Death toll: A single person died, Mary Jo Kopechne, but the incident had far-reaching repercussions.

You should know: Edward Kennedy was the third longest-serving member of the US Senate in American history.

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