For many, the name Chappaquiddick conjures images of a drunken Sen. Edward Kennedy hitting on Mary Jo Kopechne in his Oldsmobile, losing control, and plunging into the water of Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island, adjacent to Martha's Vineyard where President Obama was vacationing. Kopechne, a family friend, drowned; and Teddy fumbled for excuses about what happened.
Now, a year after Kennedy died, his lifelong biographer Burton Hersh, armed with fresh interviews with Kennedy's mistress at the time, tells Whispers that the whole July 1969 episode should have been handled as a simple crash, leaving the senator's legacy untainted. "It was a car accident," he says. "Ted was a terrible driver. He never paid much attention to where he was going."
"He took a tremendous blow on the head," says Hersh. In interviews following the crash, Kennedy displayed confusion and amnesia, he says.
"If the thing had been handled properly, the first thing they would have done is put him in a hospital. Then they would have said he was a victim of an auto accident and didn't know what he was doing and couldn't be held responsible for anything that happened really after that, which would have been a fair explanation," says author-journalist Hersh, who knew Kennedy since they were classmates at Harvard. "But instead, he felt terribly guilty about the whole thing ... tried to take responsibility and ... just confused the issue."
In Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography, Hersh adds some new details about the episode from Helga Wagner, Kennedy's then-girlfriend and "the love of [his] life," at least until he married his second wife, Victoria. Wagner, the first to receive a call from Kennedy after the crash, consented to be interviewed by Hersh this year, and she confirms his view that Kennedy was a mental mess after the crash.
"She found him confused and a little disoriented," Hersh tell Whispers. She also rejects claims that Kennedy was an alcoholic.
As for Kennedy being interested in the straight-laced Kopechne, Hersh says that was highly unlikely. "She wasn't Ted's kind of babe. She was a long way from being a bimbo."
He also brushes off tales that Kennedy was a playboy more than a lawmaker. "Kennedy's central project was accomplishing as much as he could in public life. And all of the things, including the drinking, the women, and the rest, were sort of supportive activities. They were amusements."