July marks the anniversary of the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a Pennsylvania native who drowned in Chappaquiddick, Mass., in 1969. We do not know whether she died late on July 18 or early on July 19 because the late Sen. Ted Kennedy escaped the submerged vehicle he had been driving and left her to drown. Kennedy did not alert the authorities until the next morning, nine or ten hours later, that he had abandoned the upside-down Oldsmobile underwater, so authorities could not pinpoint the time of her death. If she remained conscious, she likely spent her last moments terrified, gasping for air, desperately trying to claw her way out. At the time, Kennedy had presidential aspirations.

The morning after the incident, Kennedy casually chatted about the weather with friends. He took the ferry and then strolled into the police station to report the accident, a well-heeled vacationer freshly groomed in white trousers and a blue polo shirt. Fishermen had already found his car in the pond.

Mary Jo held a bachelor’s degree – unusual in 1969 as only about 11 percent of women in the labor force that year had graduated from college. She had worked in Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign as a political strategist, described in a 1974 magazine article as one of a group of women that were “frighteningly intelligent, politically astute, capable as all get-out.” The death of a promising young woman in a car driven by a Kennedy attracted worldwide attention, and the press descended upon Chappaquiddick armed with questions. Kennedy remained silent for a week.

At a court hearing on July 25, 1969, Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. That night, he made a televised statement on ABC, claiming he suffered from “utter exhaustion and alarm” on Mary Jo’s last night on earth. He described his decision to “not report the accident to the police immediately” as “indefensible.” While he placed his report to law enforcement on the back burner, Kennedy immediately told two of his entourage, Joseph Gargan, his cousin, and Paul Markham, who he claimed dove into the pond in the middle of the night, attempting to retrieve Mary Jo. Both men were attorneys who undoubtedly knew better. Markham had even served as a United States District Attorney for the District of Massachusetts under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Kennedy glossed over their failure to immediately report the incident to competent, non-attorney first responders trained in water rescue as a wish not to “alarm “Mary Jo’s friends.”

Of his approximately 12-minute televised statement, Kennedy spent about seven minutes on his version of Mary Jo’s death. In an amazing display of narcissism and a lack of self-perception, he spent the next five minutes ruminating about his political career. Mary Jo had been dead only a week. He took no questions.

Kennedy spent the rest of his life avoiding direct questions about Chappaquiddick. It was not for lack of being asked.

Even though Americans had just landed on the moon, Kennedy’s involvement in Mary Jo’s death dominated the news cycle and haunted him until he died. The press relentlessly pursued Kennedy, but he simply refused to respond meaningfully.

Despite the horrifying scandal, Massachusetts voters reelected him to the Senate in 1970 and did so six more times until he died in office in 2009. The American public, apparently not as enthralled by the Kennedy aura as those in his home state, did not so easily forgive him. He sought the Democratic presidential nomination against Jimmy Carter in 1980, but the constant Mary Jo questions, both by the public and the press, thwarted his efforts. Even though Carter won more primaries, Kennedy, apparently armed with the same inflated sense of self-worth that caused him to convert his 1969 televised statement about Mary Jo into a self-centered reflection of his political desirability, went to the convention in the summer of 1980, hoping to change the rules and unbind delegates. He failed.

Kudos to the journalists who did their jobs during the 40 years following Mary Jo’s death. In Carter, Kennedy had an unpopular primary opponent whose beleaguered presidency included multiple foreign policy disasters, soaring energy costs, stubborn unemployment, and double-digit inflation. Kennedy may have left Mary Jo in a watery grave. Still, some believed he had a better chance than Carter to beat Ronald Reagan, whom the left portrayed as a warmonger and right-wing extremist who would cut entitlements and threaten world peace, all while dismantling the progressive policies so near and dear to the left.

To the extent that members of the press privately supported Kennedy or thought he would be a better choice than Carter, they could have easily changed the narrative by not asking questions that would portray Kennedy in a negative light. Ten years past Mary Jo’s death, the press could have suppressed that story and beefed up others, thus swaying the collective American psyche.

Having come from a country with a monarchy that had demonstrably abused power, our Founding Fathers envisioned speech and a robust press without significant regulation or restraint. The ability to challenge our government and those who wish to be elected to it without hindrance or fear of prosecution secures the liberty of our citizens. Comprehensive investigations and vigorous publication of information arms citizens with the currency of knowledge, which they, in turn, use to choose their representatives.

When journalists abandon their principles and instead use their considerable influence to promote an agenda by intentionally omitting relevant information from their reporting, they engage in a reckless disregard for the liberty we hold so dear. When elected officials or campaigns play along with a subservient and docile press and avoid the toughest, most provocative questions by demonizing those who ask them, they commit the same abuses our Founding Fathers sought to prevent.

A free press could not have saved Mary Jo. However, Kennedy’s hope and reliance on his ability to manipulate the story steered him towards an immediate smokescreen of his actions and enough delay that, rather than a rescue, authorities only had the chance to engage in recovery. In the long run, journalists made sure to expose his deplorable cover-up.

Mary Jo’s family undoubtedly want her to be remembered for her considerable accomplishments rather than the tarnish of yet another Kennedy scandal.  I would like her story to remind us of the importance of holding people accountable, especially those in government who seek to lead us. Insist that questions continue to be asked, and upon encountering any reluctance to answer, vigorously push forward. Our liberty depends on it.

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