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Politics and Judgment—Reflections on "Chappaquiddick"

Politics and Judgment—Reflections on "Chappaquiddick"

Lessons of History

 

Having lived many years off and on in Boston, the name Kennedy was referred to frequently as part of the political climate, especially while Edward “Ted” Kennedy carried out his multi-term office as Senator. But it was also used to refer to the entire clan by conspiracy theorists, obsessive celebrity worshippers and over-the-top society elite. Interested in politics insofar as the issues address the genuine needs of the people and being an avid reader of history, I exercise my right and duty to vote at elections. However, beyond that my interest is limited. I am inspired by the chronicles of heroism by Abraham Lincoln, politicians, generals, and soldiers during the Civil War, intrigued by the complicated maneuverings of intelligence and troops during World War II, and can appreciate the struggle to fight for justice in the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Integrity is the test of any genuine public servant—man or woman. If one’s interests are truly to serve humankind and seek peace among peoples, then I salute those who, in honesty and sincerity, pursue this most noble task. Yet, too often, as the annals of history testify, power and money are at the core of temptations to selfish interests and the root of many evils. No public servant, whose very job it is to wield tremendous governmental power and treasuries, is exempt from facing the life-long test of good versus evil.  So many admirable leaders left behind a legacy of ardent effort to transform a world often torn apart by opposing ideologies and inherent prejudices. Only God knows the interior struggles they faced with such weighty decisions placed before them often at the expense of the lives of their citizens. None of them can be judged by us who only see a small part of the picture that they actually dealt with over the course of their service. So, we leave all judgment to God alone. Yet, while delving into history and its circumstances we too often come across the side of humanity that is less than emulative and can only guess at what we would do if placed in the same situation.

 

A Fatal Mistake

 

This is what I felt when I watched the acclaimed drama film Chappaquiddick directed by John Curran and written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan. I, by no means, am a Kennedy aficionado, but I can appreciate how the name has shaped American politics, for good or for ill. The film chronicles in an intriguing, dramatic way the mysterious facts surrounding a fatal car crash by Senator Edward Kennedy (played by Jason Clarke) in the summer of 1969 on the small island off of Martha’s Vineyard, Chappaquiddick. On the night of July 18th, Kennedy throws a party for his aides, friends and the women who were former aides to his brother Robert, known as the “boiler room girls.” He gets into a car and one of the women, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) goes with him. The car careens off a narrow bridge plunging into a pond. Ted escapes and swims to shore, eventually walking back to the cabin where his aides are still partying leaving Mary Jo behind trapped inside the car under water. He waited until the next day to actually report the incident.

 

Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne in Chappaquiddick (Apex Entertainment)

 

The film presents a profound character study with extensive speculation rather than sensationalizing the incident. Exactly what happened that fateful night remains largely unknown. As the film unfolds through persuasive storytelling we see the intricate play between the corrosive use of power and prestige with personal integrity. Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms), Ted’s adopted brother always stood by his side and helped the Senator throughout his political career. He and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) rush to the scene of the accident to see if they can open the car door to help Mary Jo, unsure of whether she was actually dead or alive. Both men insist that Ted report the accident and work through the challenges that will come as a result. Instead Ted dawdles. He immediately realizes his chances at being president are non-existent.

 

The Underbelly of Politics

 

Joseph Kennedy Sr. (Bruce Dern) suffers from debilitating strokes but his mind is sharp and attentive. He scolds Ted for not listening to him to offer an alibi when Ted tells him he gave a written statement to the police chief. How much of this is embellishment? No one really knows. But, it seeks to address the character of the person. Joe tells Ted through a note, “You’ve lost my confidence. Do as I say and never lose it again, otherwise it will be a nearly impossible task to restore it.” Joe sends his aides to assist Ted in addressing the situation and saving his political career. The clever maneuverings of information and political connections with law enforcement and judicial personnel among Joseph’s powerful aides represents a distaste for the dirty side of politics that puts reelection ahead of truth, justice, and humility. Ted struggles with this dilemma while continuously trying to cover up the hard truth of the story. He is the only witness and so no one can contradict him. Facts are twisted to protect his character. But, his character is already marred by the incident. It takes PR experts to make the public believe the incident is not as bad as it seems.

 

A gathering of Joseph Kennedy's aides to assist Ted (Apex Entertainment)

 

Later when Ted visits his father again, Joe strikes him for not lying about the incident. Ted tells him “I never wanted to be president. I wanted to make you proud by chasing your dreams for you, just like Joe, Jack and Bobby…. I want to be a great man. I just don’t know who I am.” Joe Sr. grabs his son’s neck and pulls him close whispering, “You will never be great.” The harshness of this relationship adds depth to the Senator’s inner struggle.

 

Personal Integrity

 

When Joseph Gargan refuses to be part of the intrigue he packs his bags to leave. Ted begs for him to stay on insisting that he needs him. Joseph tells him that he must resign from the Senate. Before going on TV for a live broadcast statement, Joseph tries to help him do the morally right thing and to resign would be the right thing. He emphasizes to the Senator, “This isn’t about opportunity, it’s about integrity.” Ted tells him, “We all have flaws. We all do. Moses had a temper. Peter betrayed Jesus. I have Chappaquiddick.” To which Joseph responds, “Yeah, but Moses didn’t leave a girl dead at the bottom of the Red Sea.” Ted goes on television and reads the statement prepared by his father’s aides, ignoring Joseph’s pleas. Joseph becomes estranged from the Kennedy family.

 

Jason Clarke as Senator Edward Kennedy (Apex Entertainment)

 

How much of politics is about honesty and integrity? That alone can be answered in the heart of each public servant. It is an issue between them and God. Without judgment I can only question my own actions in the face of fear and tragedy. Ted Kennedy never became president but was the longest serving Senator of Massachusetts. His accomplishments do not diminish the tragedy of the Chappaquiddick incident. A woman died because of his or someone else’s negligence. In any case, we each must answer for our deeds, and ours alone.

 

 

 

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