Right to the Point (9/3/09)

The Lion of the Senate

Sept. 3, 2009

By Mike Benevento

Last week, America mourned the passing of Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy — one of the most influential individuals in congress. Known as “The Lion of the Senate,” Kennedy’s crucial endorsement of Barack Obama helped him win the Democratic presidential nomination last year. Longtime friend Sen. Patrick Leahy called Kennedy the most prolific lawmaker in the nation’s history.

During his long tenure, Kennedy sponsored over 300 bills that were enacted into law. In an editorial, Charles Krupa of the Associated Press wrote, “He championed causes including the Voting Rights Act, funding for AIDS treatment, equality for women’s scholastic sports programs, and a more humane immigration policy.”

Socialized health care was one of Kennedy’s biggest causes. Although he died of brain cancer before seeing results, Democrats are currently pursuing his goal of fundamentally changing America’s health care system.

Without a doubt, Kennedy was a great senator — devoted to his country. He was also a great family man. As Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry reminisced, he had a good sense of humor and worked with others in a bipartisan manner on many pieces of legislation.

While Kennedy had a long and distinguished political career, his actions during a fatal car crash on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass. in 1969 remain troublesome.

That summer, Kennedy caused an auto accident that led to the death of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. As ABC News’ Susan Donaldson James describes, “After a day of sailing and heavy drinking, Kennedy drove his black Oldsmobile sedan off a small wooden bridge into Poucho Pond, trapping Kopechne in seven feet of water.”

According to Kennedy, he simply took a wrong turn while giving Kopechne a ride to her hotel. That mistake led to him driving off a narrow bridge in the opposite direction he intended to go. Kennedy said he made several diving attempts to save Kopechne, became exhausted and then “panicked.”

Rather than contact emergency rescue, Kennedy eventually swam across a 500-foot channel, went to his hotel room, slept until the morning and then called lawyers and friends.

Ten hours later — only after Kopechne’s body had been found — Kennedy informed the authorities of the accident. Due to confusion, the police never administered Kennedy a blood-alcohol test.

About a week later, Kennedy received a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of the accident. Although he never served any prison time, the scandal later derailed his 1980 presidential bid against Jimmy Carter.

Kennedy’s actions leading up to the accident were questionable enough. However, after the crash, his efforts to create an alibi and cover up his participation proved downright deadly.

After initial attempts to rescue Kopechne, Kennedy wrongly assumed she drowned. He then undertook self-serving actions to save his political career. In the meantime, unbeknownst to Kennedy, Kopechne was still alive in his overturned car, hoping for rescue while clinging to life in an air pocket in the back seat.

Rather than call for help or notify the authorities, Kennedy spent the next 10 hours trying to cover up what happened. Eventually, Kopechne ran out of air in the vehicle and lost her life.

John Farrar, the diver who recovered Kopechne’s body from Kennedy’s automobile, testified that she had survived the crash. Trapped in the car, she was breathing in the air bubble for up to two hours until she ran out of oxygen.

“Had I received a call within five to 10 minutes of the accident occurring, and was able, as I was the following morning, to be at the victim’s side within 25 minutes of receiving the call, in such event there is a strong possibility that she would have been alive on removal from the submerged car,” Farrar said.

The way I see it, instead of helping Kopechne escape from an accident he caused, Kennedy abandoned her and took care of his own political business. For Kennedy, his political career was more important than her life.

Ted Kennedy could have helped save Mary Jo Kopechne, but instead took care of himself!

In the end, Kennedy’s cover-up and lies were successful: He spent over 46 years as a United States senator. Kopechne became yet another victim of power and money.

Although I applaud his efforts on behalf of our country, Kennedy’s actions at Chappaquiddick greatly tarnished his accomplishments. It is hard to fully respect a man who causes a woman’s death while trying to cover up his mistakes in order to save his own political skin.

In Ted Kennedy’s case, the end does not justify the means.

Michael Benevento is a former Air Force fighter jet weapon systems officer. He has a bachelor’s degree in Military History and a master’s in International Relations. Mike resides in Williston with his wife Kristine and their two sons, Matthew and Calvin.