My Family Happened To Be Vacationing On Cape Cod In 1969 When Ted Kennedy Drove Off That Bridge

Joanne Butler | Contributor

By a strange coincidence, my family was vacationing on Cape Cod in 1969 when the Chappaquiddick incident occurred.

And so, when he film “Chappaquiddick” opens this week, I’ll be one of the early viewers.

The story is that my mother had decided that my brother and I were old enough to have an “educational enrichment” vacation. Dad dutifully drove us from Silver Spring, Maryland to Boston. After touring the Revolutionary War sites, we moved on to Cape Cod.

Cape Cod was important. Mom cherished all things Jackie. So, off we went.

Being used to the sandy beaches of Ocean City, Maryland, my brother and I was unimpressed by pebbly Cape Cod.

Then Chappaquiddick happened. It had a special meaning for us, as there were Hill staffers in our neighborhood. This was back when staffers had a special metal plate bolted to the bottom of their license plates – they were easy to spot on the street. (Many of them had come from Pennsylvania to seek their fortune in Washington, D.C.)

Then the news broke out about how something went terribly wrong at a bridge at Martha’s Vineyard. Senator Ted Kennedy was involved. His staffer, Mary Jo Kopechne, had died.

We didn’t have a television in our cabin, so we drove to Falmouth and stood with a crowd who were watching Kennedy’s speech through a television store window.

My father had stood in the bitter cold in January 1961 to be at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural. In 1963, my dad and his brother stood in line for hours in the bitter November cold to pay their respects to the assassinated president lying in state in the Capitol.

But that evening in Falmouth, my mother watched Ted Kennedy. She turned to me and hissed: You’re never working for that man.

The glowing Camelot/Kennedy aura had faded to black in the blink of an eye.

Like Mary Jo, my family had Polish roots and was from Pennsylvania. Dad knew we had to move out of the crumbling mining town where I was born. He had said his choices were Cleveland (where he had relatives) or D.C. (no relatives but a better economy). Providentially, my father made the right choice.

In my mother’s mind, the Chappaquiddick incident had no grey areas. Mary Jo was a young woman with a similar background to ours. She had come to D.C., and was taken advantage of by Ted Kennedy. Worse yet, Mary Jo was dead and Mom was certain her death would be hushed up. Mary Jo’s parents were back in Pennsylvania and could be easily manipulated.

Mom knew the ways of those old mining towns — and the people who stayed behind. She believed Mary Jo’s parents would get rolled. Indeed, they were paid $141,000 from the Kennedy family’s insurance company. (That amount is about $936,000 in today’s dollars.)

Today I am pleased how the truth of Chappaquiddick is being revealed via mass media. My mother would be pleased, too, I believe. No grey areas, no television announcers trying to smooth things over for the Kennedys.

Lastly, you may not realize how Ted Kennedy had to have his own institute, as a companion to brother John’s presidential library and museum on the University of Massachusetts Boston campus. Ted’s institute has a spiffy website that includes a timeline of his long Senate career.

But it skips over the year 1969. Now you know why.

Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School at Harvard, was a professional staff member (Republican) at the House Ways and Means Committee, and served in President George W. Bush’s administration. The Ghanaian poet, Kwesi Brew, has described her as ‘vibrant.’


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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