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Ted Kennedy Did Nothing Wrong:
Chappaquiddick, a Review

2,251 words

Chappaquiddick (2017)
Directed by John Curran
Written by Taylor Allen & Andrew Logan
Starring Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, & Jim Gaffigan

Whenever I contemplate the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, the Republican in me always asks in anguish, “Why couldn’t it have been Teddy Kennedy who drowned and not the girl?”

From a Right-wing (albeit somewhat bloodthirsty) perspective, such a question does make sense. We all know the youngest Kennedy’s appallingly liberal record in the Senate. We all know about his nigh-treasonous flirtations with the Soviet Union. We all know his key role in the egalitarian miscreation that was the No Child Left Behind Act, to say nothing of the horrendous 1965 Immigration Bill (four years before Chappaquiddick, but still . . .). We all know how much better off the United States would have been without this odious man causing trouble in government. Thinking about a Senate in the 1960s and 1970s without its big-haired liberal ballast from Massachusetts certainly makes me happy. Reminding myself that that’s not how things turned out in real life, however, has the opposite effect. Perhaps this is why I try not to think about the incident at Chappaquiddick.

I am quite sure that the more honest folks on the Left have similarly mixed emotions about the incident. The man was a sitting Senator who was driving drunk; he was cavorting with a young woman who was not his wife; he crashed his car into a lake; he fled the scene, leaving the girl to die; and then he tried to cover it up for the sake of his political career. It must not be pleasant when guilt rubs up against party loyalty as you’re voting for him for the ninth time in forty-four years.

The brilliance of Chappaquiddick, the 2017 film dramatization of this incident, is that, with its artistic restraint and narrative vision, it makes you forget all your feelings about it. The film becomes its own universe and can be viewed and analyzed absent any knowledge of historical events. To accomplish this, it simply tells the Chappaquiddick story with a light touch and gives the actors ample room to humanize their subjects. The question of whether the film makes Ted Kennedy sympathetic or true-to-life becomes moot. The film renders him realistic – with virtues and foibles no different than anyone else – and goes no further than that. By eschewing a singular point of view, Chappaquiddick lets the audience decide if Kennedy or any of the other characters deserve sympathy, which is good and proper for any work of art. This is in contrast with Thirteen Days, another excellent film about the Kennedys, which is really the story of Kenny O’Donnell, who was a chief White House advisor and longtime friend of the Kennedys.

Unlike other films which are based on real events and are thus constrained to some extent by history, Chappaquiddick offers an intriguing beginning, a gripping middle, and a satisfying end which, upon reflection, makes the film a coherent whole and inspires one to contemplate its themes as they appear in life.

Ted Kennedy’s (played with subtle power by Jason Clarke) contradictions become apparent early on when he’s giving an interview to the press. As he’s spouting off the typical Kennedy family boilerplate, he’s asked what it’s like to live in the long shadow of this brother Jack. To this, naïve soul he is, Kennedy doesn’t know what to say. Moments later, he’s expertly manipulating his attorney-cousin Joey Gargan (played by a manically convincing Ed Helms) to make complex arrangements for the fateful party on Chappaquiddick Island.

Like any good protagonist, Kennedy is faced with dilemmas which point to universal dichotomies that define his character – and many of ours as well. Is he an independent adult or the inconsequential pawn of a domineering family? Does he feel remorse for his sins or is he a calculating politician concerned only about his career? And in the end, does he do what’s right or does he only do what’s necessary?

On the night of the incident, Kennedy delivers a moving speech to his friends and colleagues in the beach house where the party is being held. It’s about family, idealism, and loyalty, and director John Curran plays it straight. There’s no soundtrack, only the crickets from outside. There’s no heavy-handed cinematography or fancy camerawork. We get no cynical looks from the listeners or ironic mannerisms from Kennedy himself. Within the peculiar universe of Chappaquiddick, we understand that Ted Kennedy the character is being quite sincere; it matters not what we know or suspect about Ted Kennedy the man.

When talking about his brother Bobby, he says, “We miss him every day. His memory endures. His ideals will endure. And we will persevere because that’s what Kennedys do. And I want you all to know that because you are all part of the Kennedy family now.” Afterwards, when a partygoer declares that Kennedy will win the White House in 1972, Curran zooms in ever so slightly on Kennedy, who does not acknowledge the boast. We realize that he’s not so sure. And it is this unease, or perhaps fear, that soon becomes the topic of his conversation with Mary Jo Kopechne, the girl whose life he is about to inadvertently destroy.

Again, is he his own man? Or is he just a good-looking cog in a machine? The film gives no answers – because there aren’t any – but after Mary Jo’s drowning, Curran and Clarke depict Kennedy struggling to reconcile these two extremes. When he stumbles back to the beach house, the first thing he says to Joey is, “I’m not going to be President.” He does nothing while Joey struggles in vain to free Mary Jo from the submerged car. He doesn’t report the incident. He steals a rowboat to get back to his hotel. If the filmmakers wished to portray Kennedy in the most jaundiced light after such soft, stupid cowardice, they could have done so.

But they didn’t.

The scene in which Kennedy submerges himself in the bathtub that night as he flashes back to that poor girl drowning in his car is about as harrowing as anything you’re going to find in cinema. You see, he does care. And in the next few days, despite numerous self-serving, deceptive acts – such as claiming that Mary Jo had been driving – he begins to make independent strides. He begins to assert his own identity, not as a Kennedy but as himself. Of course, he’s not always the smartest person in the room, so he makes mistakes, sometimes gross ones (the ridiculous neck brace at Mary Jo’s funeral was one). But he also has moments of clarity which others are forced to recognize.

His trip to the Edgartown Police Department represents his first baby steps towards independence – towards manhood, really. He reports the incident in person to the Police Chief, but before that he calls Mary Jo’s mother to break the news (albeit in an evasive and passive way: “Mary Jo was involved in an accident,” he says). His tears afterward are real, as is his promise to his dying father over the phone to “tell the truth” and “do what’s right.” All the old man can say is “Alibi!” and urge his boy to lead the family, not himself. After this, the son hangs up.

So there is a moral compass spinning around in Kennedy’s mind after all, and the film’s suspense results from whether that needle will stop on true north or not. There was a similar story arc in The Godfather. Will Michael become one with the family, or will he step forward and do the right thing? When he lies to his wife about his role in the revenge-murder of his sister’s husband and then closes the door on her, you know what the resolution is. Chappaquiddick leads towards a similar climax. Will Ted Kennedy do the right thing in the end? And also, what is the right thing? In The Godfather, this latter question is less murky than in Chappaquiddick.

As Kennedy flies home, Curran provides slow aerial footage of the massive mansions in Kennedy’s neighborhood coming into view. The old man’s minions in government (most notably, Ted Sorenson and Robert McNamara) assess the damage and devise plans of action. The empire is about to strike back, and it comes in the form of the family’s wheelchair-bound, enfeebled patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, Sr. (in an unforgettably creepy performance by Bruce Dern). After slapping his son across the jaw, he leads him into a room where his brain trust is waiting, and which is now being entrusted to find a solution to the problem. Sorenson says it best: “Well, Bob, you handled the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now, let’s see what you can do with this one.” When presented by this phalanx of realpolitik professionals who understand the law and avenues of government better than he ever will, the younger Kennedy quickly realizes that he’s not in Mayberry, and that the unvarnished truth just isn’t going to fly.

So maybe doing the right thing is not so easy after all. But when is it ever?

And as Kennedy allows himself to get sucked further and further into the less-than-honest machinations of his father’s team, his cousin Joey watches with growing concern. The truth of the incident slowly gets chipped away until we realize that the whole affair has gone from doing what’s right to doing what’s necessary to survive. The team is willing to say or do almost anything to save Kennedy. For Joey, this is bad. He wants his friend, cousin, and colleague to man up and be honest with the people. During an interlude, while Kennedy is on the beach flying a kite, Joey tells him he can’t let him self-destruct. It may seem like he’s referring to Kennedy’s political future, but it’s more like he’s worried about his soul.

Before his televised statement to the country, Kennedy seems to have come around to Joey’s way of thinking. He instructs his cousin to write his resignation speech. But when the time comes to choose that honest speech over the dishonest one his father’s team had prepared for him, Kennedy tells his friend, “I don’t know what’s right anymore,” and then reminds him that “we all have flaws.”

Joey is disgusted because he knows what’s about to happen. Given that we have the benefit of hindsight, we do as well. In the credits, we learn that Joseph Gargan became estranged from the Kennedys after the Chappaquiddick incident, apparently unable to abide his cousin’s mendacity to the American public. But in a series of contemporaneous interviews with Massachusetts voters, we learn that most of them still supported Ted Kennedy and believed his side of the story.

In some ways, this is an ending more profound than that of The Godfather. Despite his virtuous family loyalty, there is no doubt that Michael Corleone has opted for the side of evil at the film’s close. In Chappaquiddick, however, it is left up to the audience to decide. The film says nothing about Ted Kennedy’s politics. In the context of the story, he could be a Democrat or a Republican, a dove or a hawk, a card-carrying Communist or a member of the John Birch Society. This film is not about politics so much as it is about a politician who is forced to deal with a fascinating dilemma: Do the right thing for oneself while failing to serve others, or do the wrong thing for oneself while serving others. With the film’s ambiguous ending, it could go either way. And this might be Chappaquiddick’s crowning achievement.

From here I would like to take a leap of imagination – and I hope you, as white advocates, will follow me. What if . . . Ted Kennedy had done the right thing? What if he had known that his importance to his cause outweighed the innocence of his own soul? What if his connection with his constituents – and their connection to him – had trumped his moral duty to the girl he accidentally killed? Now, from a partisan perspective we can object all we want. We can complain about how the Left has no honor, that they’re hypocrites and cowards and traitors and anything else we can think of. But they sure know how to win, don’t they? We can bask in our moral superiority over the Ted Kennedys of the world, but is that any consolation for losing the culture wars? And let’s be honest: If our White Nationalist paladin ever does materialize and offers us a shot at either turning back the clock to 1965 or realizing an ethnostate, which one of us would want to sink the movement over a dead girl in a lake? Putting him in prison for involuntary manslaughter is not going to bring her back, you know.

Yes, Ted Kennedy was the enemy. His 1965 Immigration Bill alone will be enough to gain him eternal enmity in any white ethnostate. What this wonderful film can teach white advocates, however, is the power of loyalty and identity. Ted Kennedy couldn’t throw away his career, because his people identified with his family more than he did. They were loyal to his cause more than to him, and so his personal sins became largely irrelevant. The day white people adopt this same attitude towards other whites who represent them and their collective racial interests in government will be the day we emerge victorious in the culture wars . . . regardless if we have to pull a body out of a lake.

Spencer J. Quinn is a frequent contributor to Counter-Currents and the author of the novel White Like You.

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  1. alexei
    Posted August 24, 2018 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Moral high road is the road to certain defeat.

  2. Peter Quint
    Posted August 24, 2018 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Do whatever it takes to win, and survive; taking the high-road has always led to defeat. The liberal left, and the jews always do whatever it takes to win, and they always do. We are in a death clinch with the jew, and he will not stop until every white man, white woman, and white child is murdered, butchered, and raped.

    • Jaego
      Posted August 28, 2018 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      Yes, and their idealism is still intact. Why? Why or rather how are they ABLE to embrace both Idealism and Machiavellianism without conflict? Because the Left’s goal is suicide, acting low doesn’t bother them and isn’t an issue as long as The Other benefits. With the Jews it’s the exact opposite: since They are at the Center of their own Idealism, winning is logically everything. We have nothing to learn from the former, but much to learn from the latter.

  3. Lt. Greyman, NVA
    Posted August 24, 2018 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I am not sure how such a film reflects a creature who later collected and made constant made constant “Mary Jo Drowning” jokes.

    Teddy- What’s wrong dear?
    Mary Jo- Oh I don’t know lately I’ve just been a little worried.
    Teddy- Worried? Worried about what.
    Mary Jo- What if . . . what if I’m pregnant?
    Teddy- Oh that . . . well my dear, we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.

    The man was cowardly and vomitus

    • Spencer J Quinn
      Posted August 24, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Hi Lt. Greyman,

      Agree with your assessment of Ted Kennedy. Of course, when discussing the movie I was referring to “Ted Kennedy” the character rather than Ted Kennedy the man, in the same way that Shakespeare referred to “Julius Caesar” in his play by the same name without making sure his protagonist and his nephew conformed too closely to their historical counterparts.

  4. Sharkisha
    Posted August 24, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I don’t think losing the moral high ground is a good strategy. Kennedy’s career was terribly damaged by Chappaquiddick. He was sidelined for the presidency ever after and he lost credibility with most of the public.

    Liberalism before Chappaquiddick framed the debate in America. After Chappaquiddick, not so much.

    Great article though. Really interesting.

    • Spencer J. Quinn
      Posted August 24, 2018 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Hi Sharkisha. Glad you enjoyed the review. You might be right about adopting the moral high ground. But Ted Kennedy got reelected 7 times after Chappaquiddick and didn’t exactly embarrass himself against Carter in 1980. Chappaquiddick damaged his reputation, sure. But not terribly so. Otherwise, he would have been bounced out of the Senate by 1970. People in Massachusetts remember him fondly to this day.

      • Anarcocapitalist
        Posted August 24, 2018 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

        He was reelected in Massachusetts – a state that has always been full of defective minds. The rest of the country didn’t want his bullshit (who praises the No Child Left Behind Act?)

        Compare this story of loyalty and identity to another corrupt political family with Massachusetts ties: the Bushes (the other inspiration of the NCLBA). Seems as though in the real world, loyalty and identity don’t extend very far.

  5. Posted August 24, 2018 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    This is a good review, but I disagree strongly that we need to adopt the Left’s moral Machiavellianism in order to be successful. This is precisely the thing that has been the radical Right’s downfall on so many occasions over the past 70 years, and most notably on the Alt-Right just over the past couple of years: self-appointed movement leaders who claim to uphold conservative Western values and traditions, and then turn out to be nothing more than sociopaths who believe in nothing but themselves, and then go down in flames and humiliation when their hypocrisy is revealed to the public, discrediting the rest of us in the process. What we need are leaders who actually stand for something and practice what they preach, not people who adopt a “power at any cost” approach. It usually doesn’t work, first of all, and even when it does, do we really want the fate of our civilization in such people’s hands?

    • Spencer J. Quinn
      Posted August 24, 2018 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      Hi John. Thanks for the comments. Looks like this is shaping up to be the topic of an upcoming article!

  6. leech
    Posted August 24, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    There are areas in which the Right can learn from the Left, from the organisation to the approach and methods of their philosophers.
    This is not one of those areas. If anything, Left can employ the potential hypocrisy and amorality (or the slightest indications of it) of our leaders and thinkers to our great harm far better than we can do to them. One need not mention just how successful they were in that regard in the past.

  7. stefan
    Posted August 24, 2018 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Reason why “high road” became a joke on the Right is not in the principle itself, it lays in it being invoked by spineless cuckservatives who only ever effectively demonstrate their vaunted high moral standards when the need arises to denounce someone from the right and to prove that they themselves ought not be viewed as bad guys (racists, sexists, elitists, whateverphobes and so on) by the lefties just so they can keep their comfortable places and some modicum of respectability within the current system.

    We NEED people who actually walk the walk.

    • Joseph S. Salemi
      Posted August 25, 2018 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      Yes, you are right about that. Taking “the high moral road” is what that unspeakable bastard Jeff Sessions has been doing for two years, hurting the Trump presidency in what may turn out to me a fatal manner.

      Cuckservatives and piety-soaked religionists on the Right are the one who talk about “righteousness” and “propriety,” and who are willing to lose battles because of those abstractions.

  8. Vic
    Posted August 24, 2018 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Nuance is good, intelligence is good, but…….

    There aren’t a lot of moral certainties left, but one moral certainty I have is that Ted Kennedy was a disgusting piece of shit, who left that girl slowly suffocating in a submerged car. He’s in hell now.

    He went back to the hotel, and acted like nothing happened, when he realised he couldn’t dodge it, he spent his time constructing excuses.

    Chappaquidick is a minor red pill for normie women, most of who have no idea what actually happened. Don;t lose that.

    You’re a good writer, use your talents on more worthy subjects.

    • Sharkeisha
      Posted August 24, 2018 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      You missed the point. This article isn’t about anti-leftist propaganda. It’s about surviving a FUBAR situation and how that impacts a political position.

  9. Thomas
    Posted August 24, 2018 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the thought provoking article.

    “What if . . . Ted Kennedy had done the right thing? What if he had known that his importance to his cause outweighed the innocence of his own soul? What if his connection with his constituents – and their connection to him – had trumped his moral duty to the girl he accidentally killed?”

    The virtues of our movement demand leaders that are not moral defectives like Kennedy. In that regard, it’s hard to imagine having leaders who either could be compromised in the first place, or if they were, could not redress it honorably with their followers to earn forgiveness and continued support.

    In personal affairs, I imagine many of us have helped a brother of either blood or the cause where the facts of their troubles mattered far less than knowing they were honest with you about them. I personally would give the same loyalty to a movement leader when one steps past the charlatans of recent years. Our cause does not lack for loyalty, it lacks for leaders who deserve it.

    Yes we need power, but not only. That honorable character we seek in our betters is an essential prerequisite to transcend a simple power struggle and to actually create something that will last. There are no shortcuts to the ethnostate.

  10. Spencer J. Quinn
    Posted August 25, 2018 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    Hi Troll King,

    Wasn’t defending him. “____ did nothing wrong” is just a trope that’s used a lot on C-C. I meant it in a tongue in cheek kind of way.

    • Dr. Krieger
      Posted August 25, 2018 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      Apparantly, some of C-C’s readers need a good dose of some TRS just to get the lingo. X did nothing wrong is a classic.

      Overall, I tend to agree with you. There are things that are more important than one person. Ted Kennedy wouldn’t have the faintest idea what those things actually are, but he believed his “things” were actual things. He sold his soul for them, and you have to respect that, a bit.

  11. Peter Quint
    Posted August 25, 2018 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    The Kennedys have always been scumbags, don’t forget that they made their fortune through bootleg whiskey during prohibition. Don’t forget that one of them beat a teenage girl to death with a golfclub, and finally got convicted in the two double-oughts. Don’t forget that they had one of their own daughters lobotomized just because she was average. John, and Robert were major negrophiles!

  12. Beau
    Posted August 28, 2018 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    It’s a thought-provoking topic. From a purely utilitarian perspective, the conclusion is correct. Still, when it comes down to brass tacks, character matters. Nobody’s perfect, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Committing DWI manslaughter and doing the utmost to evade responsibility is a pretty big red flag.

    Can a leader with serious baggage damage the dissident right? It’s certainly happened in the past. Further, the left can get away with lots of things that we can’t. Ted Kennedy got barely a rap on the knuckles by the judge, but if one of our guys did this, he’d go to prison. Further, the opposition would make the most of the scandal. Trying to circle the wagons on our side wouldn’t be helpful.

    • Spencer J. Quinn
      Posted August 28, 2018 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      “Further, the left can get away with lots of things that we can’t.”

      Only because we let them by assuming that they have the moral high ground. It’s as if we have to be especially moral just to get to their level. This is defeatist on its face.

      *We* have the moral high ground, not them. Not to promote bad behavior or anything, but all things being equal, sinning for our cause is more acceptable than sinning for their cause. Lefties feel this way about their cause, of course, which is why they are winning the culture wars.

      I’m just getting tired of losing. We need to re-frame this debate now and reject the double standard the Left imposes on us.

      • Beau
        Posted August 28, 2018 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

        How much hypocrisy is tolerable is a pretty deep subject. “Whatever gets us maximal results” does work in the realm of pure theory, again going strictly from utilitarianism. Still, in practice, someone with a Ted Kennedy degree of it is bound to be dead weight at best. If it was something less than that, such as an old bust for weed in college, that would be an entirely different story.

        Anyway, I recognize the danger of purity spirals; again, it’s all a deep subject. Still, the fact remains that leftist figures get away with just about anything when caught red-handed, but ours don’t. This has less to do with our unwillingness to give our guys a free pass, and more to do with the fact that they buy the judges and own the TV stations.

        Meanwhile, they’re quite happy to crow about it whenever one of our guys screws up. Actually, that’s explicitly part of their tactics. As Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals put it, “make the enemy live by their rules” and also the one about freezing your target and polarizing it.

        I say it’s time we start making leftists live by their rules and shining a spotlight on their own misdeeds. We don’t have the TV stations, of course, but we can get the word out online, which is at least something. (I’ve been doing that myself, actually.) Further efforts will be beneficial to show the world that quite a few big leftist saints were (and are) rotten to the core.

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