Ted Kennedy, Chappaquiddick Speech, 25 July 1969

On July 18, 1969, Ted_Kennedy, then Senator from Massachusetts and brother to the recently deceased John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, driving late at night on Chappaquiddick Island in Martha’s Vineyard with passenger Mary Jo Kopechne, drove off a narrow bridge into an inlet. Kennedy escaped the car, but Kopechne drowned. The accident was not reported by Kennedy till the following morning. The following week, after being tried and given a suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident, he gave this speech in which he describes the scene, gives an account of his actions, apologizes and rests the decision whether or not to resign his seat with the people of Massachusetts.

My fellow citizens:

[1] I have requested this opportunity to talk to the people of Massachusetts about the tragedy which happened last Friday evening.

[2] This morning I entered a plea of guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident. Prior to my appearance in court, it would not have been proper for me to comment on these matters, but tonight I am free to tell you what happened and to say what it means to me.

[3] On the weekend of July 18th I was on Martha's Vineyard Island participating with my nephew, Joe Kennedy, as for 30 years my family has participated, in the annual Edgartown Sailing Regatta. Only reasons of health prevented my wife from accompanying me.

[4] On Chappaquiddick Island off Martha's Vineyard, I attended on Friday evening, July 18th, a cookout I had encouraged and helped sponsor for a devoted group of Kennedy campaign secretaries. When I left the party around 11:15 p.m. I was accompanied by one of these girls, Miss Mary Jo Kopechne. Mary Jo was one of the most devoted members of the staff of Robert Kennedy. She worked for him for four years and was broken up over his death. For this reason, and because she was such a gentle, kind, and idealistic person, all of us tried to help her feel that she still had a home with the Kennedy family.

[5] There is no truth, no truth whatsoever to the widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct that have been leveled at my behavior and hers regarding that evening. There has never been a private relationship between us of any kind. I know of nothing in Mary Jo's conduct on that or any other occasion— and the same is true of the other girls at that party— that would lend any substance to such ugly speculation about their character. Nor was I driving under the influence of liquor.

[6] Little over one mile away the car that I was driving on an unlit road went off a narrow bridge which had no guard rails and was built on a left angle to the road.
The car overturned in a deep pond and immediately filled with water. I remember thinking as the cold water rushed in around my head, that I was for certain drowning; then water entered my lungs and I actually felt the sensation of drowning; but somehow I struggled to the surface alive. I made immediate and repeated efforts to save Mary Jo by diving into the strong and murky current, but succeeded only in increasing my state of utter exhaustion and alarm.

[7] My conduct and conversations during the next several hours, to the extent that I can remember them, make no sense to me at all. Although my doctors inform me that I suffered a cerebral concussion as well as shock, I do not seek to escape responsibility for my actions by placing the blame either on the physical and emotional trauma brought on by the accident, or on anyone else.

[8] I regard as indefensible the fact that I did not report the accident to the police immediately. Instead of looking directly for a telephone after lying exhausted in the grass for an undetermined time, I walked back to the cottage where the party was being held, requested the help of two friends, my cousin Joseph Gargan and Paul Markham, and directed them to return immediately to the scene with me (it then being sometime after midnight) in order to undertake a new effort to dive down and locate Miss Kopechne. Their strenuous efforts, undertaken at some risk to their lives, also proved futile.

[9] All kinds of scrambled thoughts— all of them confused, some of them irrational, many of them which I cannot recall, and some of which I would not have seriously entertained under normal circumstances— went through my mind during this period. They were reflected in the various inexplicable, inconsistent and inconclusive things I said and did— including such questions as whether the girl might still be alive somewhere out of that immediate area, whether some awful curse actually did hang over all the Kennedy's, whether there was some justifiable reason for me to doubt what had happened and to delay my report and whether somehow the awful weight of this incredible incident might in some way pass from my shoulders.

[10] I was overcome, I am frank to say, by a jumble of emotions— grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion and shock.

[11] Instructing Gargan and Markham not to alarm Mary Jo's friends that night, I had them take me to the ferry crossing. The ferry having shut down for the night, I suddenly jumped into the water and impulsively swam across, nearly drowning once again in the effort, returned to my hotel about 2 a.m. and collapsed in my room. I remember going out at one point and saying something to the room clerk.

[12] In the morning with my mind somewhat more lucid, I made an effort to call a family legal adviser, Burke Marshall, from a public telephone on the Chappaquiddick side of the ferry, and then belatedly reported the accident to the Martha's Vineyard police.

[13] Today, as mentioned, I felt morally obligated to plead guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident. No words on my part can possibly express the terrible pain and suffering I feel over this tragic incident. This last week has been an agonizing one for me and for the members of my family; and the grief we feel over the loss of a wonderful friend will remain with us the rest of our lives.

[14] These events and the publicity and innuendo and whispers which have surrounded them, and my admission of guilt this morning, raises the question in my mind of whether my standing among the people of my state has been so impaired that I should resign my seat in the United States Senate. If at any time the citizens of Massachusetts should lack confidence in their senator's character or his ability with or without justification, he could not, in my opinion, adequately perform his duties and should not continue in office.

[15] The people of this state— the state which sent John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Charles Sumner, Henry Cabot Lodge, and John F. Kennedy to the United States Senate— are entitled to representation in that body by men who inspire their upmost confidence. For this reason, I would understand full well why some might think it right for me to resign.

[16] For me this will be a difficult decision to make. It has been seven years since my first election to the Senate. You and I share many memories. Some of them have been glorious, some have been very sad. The opportunity to work with you and serve Massachusetts has made by life worthwhile.

[17] And so I ask you tonight, the people of Massachusetts, to think this through with me. In making it, I seek your prayers. For this is a decision that I will have finally to make on my own.

[18] It has been written:

A man does what he must— in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures— whatever may be— and that is the basis of all human morality— whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience— the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellowmen— each man must decide for himself the course that he will follow. The stories of past courage…cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul."

[19] I pray that I can have the courage to make the right decision. Whatever is decided, whatever the future holds for me, I hope that I shall be able to put this most recent tragedy behind me and make some further contribution to our state and mankind whether it be in public or private life. Thank you and good night.

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