On the morning of July 19, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon had to have been the happiest man in America.
As the Apollo 11 mission entered lunar orbit in preparation for the next day’s historic landing, a diver recovered the body of Mary Jo Kopechne from a tidal channel on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. Kopechne, 28, drowned when Sen. Edward Kennedy drove his car off a tiny bridge at around midnight and then failed to report the accident to authorities until the next morning. By that time, fishermen had spotted the upside-down car and summoned help.
While Nixon no doubt appreciated the tragedy of Kopechne’s death, the dour president must have immediately understood that week’s political significance for himself.
First, assuming Apollo 11 returned safely to Earth, Nixon would get to preside over America’s ultimate victory in the space race that President John F. Kennedy had launched at the beginning of the decade.
Second, Nixon no longer faced the prospect of opposing a Kennedy when he sought re-election in 1972. Nixon was bitter over his narrow loss to JFK in 1960. An assassin’s bullet may have put Nixon in the White House in 1968 by ending the campaign—and the life—of Sen. Robert Kennedy. This allowed Nixon to squeak past Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was saddled with the Johnson administration’s unpopular involvement in Vietnam.
Edward “Ted” Kennedy was widely expected to pick up the torch for his older brothers and run against Nixon in 1972. Chappaquiddick made that impossible. According to the account Kennedy gave, he became confused and panicky after his car plunged into the water, convincing himself that somehow Kopechne had escaped the vehicle even though he saw no sign of her. A week after the accident, he pleaded guilty to leaving the scene, receiving a two-month jail sentence, the statutory minimum, which was suspended. The district attorney did not pursue other charges, such as manslaughter, even after a closed-door inquest in early 1970 concluded that there was probable cause to believe Kennedy had operated his vehicle negligently, resulting in Kopechne’s death.
The shadow of Chappaquiddick kept Kennedy out of the presidential race in 1976, by which time Nixon himself had resigned in disgrace. Kennedy finally tried to fulfill his seemingly manifest destiny in 1980, when he ran against incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. By 1980, it seemed that the events of 1969 had receded enough to make a race possible.
But it was a confused, halfhearted run. As a young Associated Press political writer, I covered a campaign stop in Helena, Mont., by Kennedy’s then-wife Joan. She seemed to be utterly miserable on the campaign trail. The senator himself gave a rambling, disjointed answer when CBS newsman Roger Mudd asked why he wanted to be president. Underneath it all, voters sensed, Ted Kennedy was seeking the White House because he was supposed to, not because he had a good reason.
Kennedy’s 1980 failure actually freed him to be what he probably wanted to be all along: A career member of the Senate. By the time he died this week, Kennedy had managed to become the third-longest-serving senator in U.S. history and a liberal icon who nonetheless could form personal bonds and political alliances across the increasingly poisonous partisan divide in Washington (as noted by his friend, conservative Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah).
Had Kennedy’s auto gone off a bridge at a different time, or in a different place, his tenure in public office might have ended and he might well have gone to prison. Some doubtless would argue that his family name also had something to do with sparing him.
For whatever reason, Kennedy’s career did not end at Chappaquiddick, or with his failed run against Carter. Kennedy’s redemption began with those events and ended, ultimately, with the appreciation he received in the final months of his life.
Nixon, too, found a measure of redemption. The only president ever to resign the office was hailed as a statesman when he died 20 years later. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, announced Nixon’s death in the White House Rose Garden. Clinton joined every living former president in attending Nixon’s funeral. Ted Kennedy told The Washington Post that even his brother JFK had appreciated Nixon’s public grace in defeat.
We do not elect action figures to public office. We elect human beings, and human beings typically are far from perfect. Maybe we need to recalibrate our expectations and remember that with error comes the opportunity to make amends.