Perhaps the filmmakers behind the movie “Chappaquiddick” merely intended to take us behind the scenes of the most underrated cataclysmic political event in recent memory. But they ended up doing so much more.
I say the impact of Chappaquiddick is underrated because modern audiences are probably unaware of the dominoes that fell as the result of it.
The political fallout denied Democrats their unifying challenger to President Nixon in 1972, leaving the party at the mercy of the new (at the time) neo-Marxist Left, embodied by eventual nominee George McGovern, whom Nixon crushed. Which also means that had there not been a Chappaquiddick, there might never have been a Watergate scandal. Furthermore, that makes it unlikely Jimmy Carter ever would have become president in 1976. It’s a chain reaction that might have denied Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980 as well.
In short, many lives were changed forever when Senator Ted Kennedy left Mary Jo Kopechne to die, trapped in a car he was driving that he crashed through the bridge on Chappaquiddick Island.
While the movie does an excellent job taking us behind the scenes of the event, it does something else along the way: It shows us how we got where we are in our media and politics today.
Chappaquiddick is my wife’s historical hobby, so she went to the movie looking for historical accuracy. She also came away from the film thinking they made Kennedy out to be too sympathetic, as basically the victim of a ruthless patriarch living his unmet expectations through his sons, whom he drove to extremes and to their deaths.
But since my full-time job is contemporary politics and I didn’t go into it with the knowledge my wife has, I saw something else. I saw our origin story. The gaslighting, media spin/manipulation, crisis management, fake news, and tribalistic what-aboutism that is our normal nowadays all began here.
It started with a political celebrity manipulating fanboy local law enforcement who wanted to serve “the senator” more than justice, similar to the locals who are groupies, honored to have a brush with Kennedy royalty. So they can’t be bothered with something trite like vehicular homicide committed by a guy who went back to his room, took a bath, slept on it, and then got up and went to breakfast the next morning before reporting the incident.
Then there are the underlings, including a U.S. attorney, willing to lie for him if it means the seat at the table and their side wins. Because, you know, America is doomed or something if your favorite politician has feet of clay. The tribalism is so infectious that Kopechne’s own parents come across almost as if they’re thankful their daughter perished in service to the Kennedys. What nobler sacrifice could there be?
The media was not quite as systemically feckless back then as it is today. Still, you can see the mustard seeds being planted for the sorry industry we know in our time, with a mixture of real journalism and sensationalism. Guess which side wins out in the end?
Which brings us to Kennedy himself, who takes Nixon’s infamous “Checkers speech” to Bulworthian levels of chutzpah. He evolves from afraid of the shame he’s brought on his family and the loss of his birthright to shamelessly portraying himself as the victim by the end. And by embracing his inner demons and base desires, Teddy finally earns the approval of his dying dictatorial father.
After gaslighting his constituents for days with fake neck braces and even faker sympathy for Mary Jo, he gave a national address that might as well have been titled “If I Did It,” cynically closing by leaving his fate up to the voters, who proceed to break down along partisan lines in man-on-the-street TV interviews that might as well be from any cable news network every night nowadays.
There’s little appetite for justice; only a zeal to either take Kennedy down or prop him up based not on what you think is the truth, but what you think of Kennedy the politician.
Finally, there’s the lone voice crying out in the wilderness — Kennedy’s cousin/fixer, Joe Gargan, who is masterfully portrayed by Ed Helms. He is a loyal soldier to the political cause until Mary Jo’s death proves to him there is no political cause. Kennedy’s aspirations are the real cause here. And nothing — not the rule of law, not justice, not the truth, and not even a potential murder — will stand in the way. Better for one young woman to die than a power family’s ambitions to perish.
Like Ted, Gargan also transitions, but from a Kennedy loyalist to a conscientious objector, so scarred from the incident that he leaves public life altogether following its conclusion. His final indignity is holding the cue cards for Kennedy’s nationally televised realpolitik, while pushing back the bile surging up his throat.
In other words, if you’re subjected to much of what passes for politics these days, Gargan is our spirit animal.