Robert Lewis was editor-in-chief of Maclean’s from 1993 to 2000. This week, he recalls a day during Edward Kennedy’s 1970 Senate re-election campaign, which he covered for Time.
It is 6:15 in the morning on a fall day in 1970, and Senator Edward Kennedy is washing down a boiled egg with a cup of hot chocolate and reading the front page of the Boston Herald Traveler. He barely looks up as a small group of reporters from major U.S. media outlets assembles at his handsome four-bedroom home in the elegant Beacon Hill district of Boston. We are there to observe him as he stumps through the northern suburbs of Boston in search of votes for the upcoming November election. But this is no ordinary walk in the park, even for a Kennedy in Massachusetts. This, after all, is his bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate only a year after the still unexplained tragedy in which Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, drowned in Kennedy’s car after it plunged into a salty pond on remote Chappaquiddick Island in Nantucket Sound. The whole nation is watching this race, his opponents poised to proclaim the end of the Kennedy dynasty.
Before the sun has risen over Boston, a Washington-based reporter asks Ted if, had he been president, he would have attended the recent violence-ridden funeral of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. With a vacant look in his eye, Kennedy responds that he would not have gone. Turning back to his paper, he sees a headline that could have been borrowed from his own past: “Car plunges off bridge.”
Despite the constant reminders of past tragedies, Kennedy, then 38, charges into his day of mainstreeting and backslapping. Although he travels in a sedate, four-door Impala sedan, this is a campaign fuelled by a well-oiled machine. His main theme is to end the war in Vietnam and deal with poverty and health care at home. Before each stop, he peruses a large black binder with the names of key people and issues at each stop. He charms a group at a seniors’ residence when he declares in his lilting cadence, “I know about the trouble you’re having with the septic tank across the way”—as if it was about to become a Washington priority. At a high school he congratulates the student president on his recent election by name. The workers at the plant gates cheer him on.
Yet the doubts about Kennedy’s explanation of the Kopechne death linger over his 1970 campaign. Why did it take him nine hours to report the incident? Was he intoxicated? When a colleague from Time magazine and I earlier attempted to crack the wall of secrecy imposed on members of an inconclusive grand jury investigation, we emerged with indications of a cover-up that Time published in April 1970. Information had been withheld from jurors by an aspiring district attorney who evidently did not want to tangle with the Kennedy clan. Kennedy had pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and got a suspended sentence, but some grand jurors believed he could have been charged with manslaughter. As one told me, “I don’t believe this will ever be resolved as far as some people are concerned.”
Despite the doubts, Kennedy won 62 per cent of the vote in 1970. It was a stunning personal triumph, enough to secure the place of the dynasty in the future of American politics. As his son Teddy Jr. said at his funeral last week, “My father believed in redemption.” And in November 1970, Massachusetts believed in Kennedy.
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