I’m sure you know the story. In July 1969, on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, Senator Edward Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and into the water. Kennedy made his way to safety but his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned in the overturned car. He fled the scene and called several aides, but waited until the next morning to report the incident to authorities. Kennedy faced a two-month suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident.
I wrote that summary for the benefit of any readers who have never been in the presence of a conservative when the name “Ted Kennedy” came up. So now you know. More gritty details here. It was a shitty thing of Kennedy to do. His privilege protected him from the legal consequences most others would have faced under those circumstances. That’s not right. But goddammit I’m sick of Chappaquiddick.
I’m sick of people pulling the Chappaquiddick card whenever Kennedy receives praise for his enormous contributions to this country. Not only because great heroes needn’t be flawless, and Kennedy seemed genuinely remorseful for what he did, but because there is something else on Kennedy’s record I consider far more damning.
In 1991, Ted Kennedy took part in a smear campaign against a woman who accused his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, of rape. The men had been partying together in Palm Beach, Florida, when they met her at a bar. They all retreated to the Kennedy family home, where Smith allegedly raped her. She filed a police report and underwent an exam at a hospital. Meanwhile, the Kennedy clan was uncooperative and even dishonest with investigators. The case went to trial, and the prosecution brought forth three other women who claimed that Smith had assaulted them. However, the judge didn’t allow the prosecution to enter their testimony.
The police, prosecutors, rape counselors and the doctors who examined her all believed the victim’s account of rape. But William’s defense depicted the woman as a neer-do-well, and Ted Kennedy swore to his nephew’s innocence and the alleged victim’s dishonesty. Smith was cleared of all charges. In the years since, other alleged assault victims have emerged, naming Smith as their attacker. Several of his colleagues accused him of sexual harassment in 2004. The man is, by all accounts, a chauvinist sleazebag at the very least and a serial rapist at worst. And he was allowed to go free, in part, because of his uncle Ted’s influence.
I consider Ted Kennedy’s defense of his nephew in 1991 much more sinister than what he did at Chappaquiddick in 1969. The latter was motivated by panic, confusion, and possibly alcoholism. The former was intentional, and revealed something uglier about Ted Kennedy’s character. But you almost never hear about it from those who obsess about Chappaquiddick. We’ve got rape culture to thank for that.