In our noisy, toxically divided, my-way-or-the-highway political culture, you’re on one side or the other, and there’s almost no middle ground left — no place where liberals and conservatives can overlap without feeling like they’re betraying their own cause. “Chappaquiddick,” the deep and gripping new docudrama about the tragic incident that took place on July 18, 1969, when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, died by drowning, is a more probing drama of corruption than any movie Hollywood has released in years. As I said in my review, it’s a movie made in the spirit of open-eyed — and, yes, liberal — inquiry. Yet is it a film that liberal moviegoers are ready to embrace? The critics have mostly been kind, but the tone of the media coverage has been cautious, reserved, a tad skeptical; the movie is going after a sacred cow. The irony is that “Chappaquiddick” is being celebrated in conservative media circles, because it paints a devastatingly critical portrait of Ted Kennedy, one of the icons of postwar American liberalism.
Conservative media tends to be mind-bending in its selectivity. It will rush to attack a Kennedy or a Clinton (or anyone who works in Hollywood), but it will never touch a Donald Trump or a Roy Moore. I’d like to think I speak for my fellow liberals when I say that I condemn that blinding level of hypocrisy. Yet the power of “Chappaquiddick” as a movie is that it’s not a “conservative” indictment of the Kennedy clan. It doesn’t attack Ted Kennedy’s politics; it says that he betrayed his politics — betrayed the progressive dream — by refusing, at a crucial moment, to live within the rule of law.
Conservatives can make hay out of that if they’d like, but the movie is really aimed at liberals. In laying out what happened at Chappaquiddick, and in the case of certain incidents what might have happened (the filmmakers are forced to speculate, since no one who was there is now alive), “Chappaquiddick” doesn’t just reënact a legendary political scandal from 50 years ago. It throws down a gauntlet to contemporary liberal culture. The events of Chappaquiddick cast a looming shadow over Ted Kennedy’s life and career (even though he went on to be one of our most diligent and ardent senators), and the film, in taking the measure of his dishonesty in 1969, asks: What is the legacy of dividing off the personal from the political?
There has been some carping about the film’s historical accuracy, though nothing that I’ve read questions the essential interpretation of history that it presents. The critic and author Neal Gabler, who is currently writing a biography of Edward Kennedy, published an editorial in The New York Times that damned the film for its alleged distortions. Yet apart from one word spoken in the movie by Joseph P. Kennedy, Gabler barely offers a specific example to back up his case.
Among the controversies: “Chappaquiddick” says that Mary Jo Kopechne did not immediately drown after the Oldsmobile that Kennedy was driving plunged off the short bridge to Chappaquiddick Island. The film asserts that after Kennedy left the scene, she was still alive and suffocated, within a slowly diminishing pocket of air, as the water gradually rose. It’s not possible to determine the definitive truth (or falsehood) of that scenario, because Kopechne was never given an autopsy. (Considering the gravity of the circumstances, that fact alone carries the whiff of scandal.) However, according to The Boston Globe, the film’s interpretation of the evidence squares with that of John Farrar, the diver who retrieved Kopechne and based what he said on the position of her body.
The crucial fact of Chappaquiddick is, of course, that Ted Kennedy took 10 hours to report the incident to the police. That delay was, in itself, a crime, especially if you apply the most plausible (and accepted) interpretation of what the 10 hours were about: that Kennedy had been drinking, and that he used the time to sober up before speaking to the police. If that’s what occurred, then the attacks on the film’s accuracy add up to very little. And if that, indeed, is what happened, then the bottom line of the Chappaquiddick incident is that Ted Kennedy was guilty of involuntary manslaughter (at the very least) and should, by all rights, have gone to prison.
“Chappaquiddick” is about how Kennedy made the choice to cover up what happened — not the accident itself, but his moral complicity in it. It’s a tale of corruption at its most personal. Kennedy used his power, and connections, to sweep the full reality of his actions under the rug, and to keep his political star afloat. This, truly, is the ghastly element of Chappaquiddick: not simply that an innocent person died as a result of Ted Kennedy’s negligence, but that he weaseled out of the scandal, ducking responsibility for what he’d done. His sense of entitlement was simply too great. “Chappaquiddick” dramatizes, with queasy intimacy, the ugly (hidden) face of entitlement.
But here’s where we get into dicey terrain. Conservatives have long harbored disdain for the Kennedys, and for what they regard as their dark personal hypocrisies — the serial adultery of JFK and Ted Kennedy, the Chappaquiddick incident. Those corrupt facets of the Kennedys are old news, yet what makes “Chappaquiddick” an up-to-the-minute reckoning, not just for conservatives but, more importantly, for liberals, is that the movie, by looking at this scandal anew, forces us to confront how the notion of entitlement has played out within the arena of contemporary liberal politics.
For too long, Democrats have held onto a cognitive dissonance about the Kennedys. We knew what they were hiding, and accepted it because politicians throughout history have not been saints, and also because the Kennedys were our stars. That’s part of why they were powerful politicians. Stardom is part of what politics is — and, of course, it only became more so during the brief but larger-than-life reign of JFK. Ted Kennedy reflected his brother’s stardom and, in the Chappaquiddick imbroglio, the influence that came with it: the power to run away from who he really was.
Yet any committed liberal must ask: Is all of this, in a strange way, now catching up with us? We’re at a moment when President Trump, who you could justifiably assail for a hundred different reasons (lying, incompetence, greed, authoritarianism, narcissistic bullying, making the United States, and the world, a less safe place), has been savaged by liberals for his personal behavior. He has had unseemly affairs and covered them up. He has shown an abysmal contempt for women. He has one standard of behavior for himself (i.e., he can do whatever the hell he wants) and another one for everyone else.
So how does that differ, in kind, from the sins — and the entitlement — of Edward M. Kennedy? Or of Bill Clinton, whose brilliant charisma and sexual double dealing has always been mythologically linked to the Kennedys? Does it differ at all? That sounds like a “conservative” argument, but it’s not. It’s a testament to the unification of history.
But look! I have now, myself, committed a cardinal sin. As a passionate liberal, I’m not supposed to say any of this (at least, not out loud), because it plays too neatly into conservative hands. Yet maybe what the dark truth of “Chappaquiddick” suggests is that liberal culture, going forward, needs to think more about cleaning its own house, and about who it chooses as its representatives. Can’t we just say — out loud — that with these primal sins of entitlement in our closet, we liberals haven’t had a strong enough leg to stand on to make the case against Donald Trump? That’s a major part of what the last election was about. It’s part of why the arguments against Trump’s personal behavior were neutralized, reduced to the political equivalent of white noise.
“Chappaquiddick” is a movie about a 50-year-old scandal, but the film’s overwhelming message is that the scandal lives on every time a Democrat uses his or her “idealism” to mask a way of living that betrays the ideals that he or she stands for. Corruption on that scale is something you can try to hide, but it ultimately seeps out of you. It seeps into your political party and the nation at large. It’s the force in which true liberalism drowns.