The press corps romance with the Kennedy family was never the same after Ted Kennedy drove Mary Jo Kopechne to a watery grave in the summer of 1969.
Not everybody in the press adored the Kennedys, of course. But those who did—like famed New York Times reporter, editor, and columnist James “Scotty” Reston—attended to the family’s legend like priests on retainer.
Reston’s high point—or low, depending on your frame of reference—came on Saturday, July 19, 1969, when Kennedy’s submerged 1967 black Oldsmobile Delmont 88 was discovered in a Chappaquiddick Island tidal channel, just off Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
At the time, Reston owned a home on Martha’s Vineyard, as well as the island’s weekly Vineyard Gazette. He was on the island the weekend of the accident and like any good newsman, he reported the story and phoned it into the Times when he learned that police were questioning Kennedy.
Let’s turn to John F. Stacks’ informative biography Scotty: James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism(2003) for the rest of the story:
[Reston] dictated the first paragraph, the lead in which the essence of the story is usually conveyed, with this first sentence: “Tragedy has again struck the Kennedy family.” The victim was not mentioned until the fourth paragraph. Later in the day, [top Times editor] Abe Rosenthal called [Reston’s wife] Sally Reston at home in Edgartown, asking her to advise Scotty that there had been a few changes made to Scotty’s story. (In the edited version, the real victim was in the lead.)
That Reston viewed the accident as a tragedy for the Kennedy family rather than for Mary Jo Kopechne or her family reveals how smitten he was with the clan. But there’s more! Rosenthal immediately assigned Joseph Lelyveld—who would later become the executive editor of the Times—to the Chappaquiddick story, and he arrived on Saturday afternoon to relieve Reston. Stacks continues:
Scotty treated Lelyveld like a weekend guest. Dinner came first—pasta, as Lelyveld remembers it. During the meal, Scotty opined that Ted Kennedy could still be president: time would pass and the incident be forgotten. Sally disagreed. “Scotty, how could you be so cynical?” she asked. Scotty was a bit surprised that Lelyveld had been sent. “The story is over,” he told Lelyveld.
Reston filed no new copy for the late edition of the paper. The next day the two visited the accident site, where Lelyveld took notes from two kids who said they had discovered the car and called police. “Lelyveld took notes; Scotty took a fishing rod out of his car and began fishing with the boys. With that, he washed his hands of the story,” Stacks writes.
Lelyveld, reflecting later on Reston’s role that weekend, felt that he had operated for so long among the powerful in Washington that he saw the story as only about Kennedy. “He had no sense of how people outside Washington would see the story. He was not interested in the investigative angle,” Lelyveld said. It initially eluded Reston that the story was not about something happening to Teddy Kennedy but about something a Kennedy did to someone else.
Stacks gives Reston credit for praising the “devastating” story Lelyveld wrote a week later reconstructing the accident. But in subsequent columns, Reston never retreated from the Kennedy corner. On July 27, he called Kennedy’s July 25 televised address to the nation “a kind of tragic ‘profile in courage’ ” and continued to obsess on Kennedy’s “ghastly experience,” not Kopechne’s.
On Aug. 15, with “Kennedy tragedy” still firmly in mind, he wrote a peculiar column that criticized unnamed journalists for committing the sin he was guilty of: ignoring Kopechne. Reston writes:
The Kennedy story goes on from one tragic chapter to another. At first, so prominent was the Senator’s family, fame and political future that there was almost no time or pity for the girl. In the competitive struggle of the news, Edward Kennedy’s political career became more important than Mary Jo Kopechne’s life.
By Sept. 3, in his best piece, Reston was noting—if not shouting in protest about—how the investigation and judicial proceedings were warped to Kennedy’s benefit. But in a Jan. 7, 1970, piece, he had returned to his old theme, lamenting about “the last legal stages of the Chappaquiddick nightmare” that Kennedy was living.
The Kennedy-Chappaquiddick proceeding drew O.J.-style coverage from the press. Despite the peculiarities of the case, which even Reston had acknowledged, he tut-tutted the saturation reporting. From his Jan. 7, 1970, column:
Seldom in the wonderful goofy history of politics and the press have so many reporters and so much expensive gear been transferred at such cost to cover so little news as in the current Kennedy inquiry.It is a non-story, held behind closed doors, to repeat old tales, which few people quite believe anyway, yet it is a ghoulish mystery and even Chet Huntley and David Brinkley thought it more important than any other story in the world on the day the Senator merely went in and came out of a courthouse door.
Reston continued to view Kennedy as the victim of Chappaquiddick until the end. A ProQuest search of Times digitized archives reveals that in the five Chappaquiddick columns he wrote, he mentioned the dead secretary by name only once.
Here’s the headline and lede from the July 20, 1969, Times story about the accident.
Woman Passenger Killed,
Kennedy Escapes in CrashSenator Tells the Police He Wandered
About in Shock After Car Ran Off
Bridge Near Martha’s VineyardEDGARTOWN, Mass. July 19—A 28-year-old woman passenger drowned today when a car driven by Senator Edward M. Kennedy plunged 10 feet off a bridge into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island near this community on Martha’s Vineyard.
Here are Lelyveld’s Chappaquiddick pieces. Send Chappaquiddick news to email@example.com and listen to me rave on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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