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MAUREEN CALLAHAN: New bio glosses over Ted Kennedy’s history of sexual attacks and manslaughter

Talk about rewriting history.

A new biography of Ted Kennedy, out this week, soft-pedals the worst of him: Namely, his callous and lifelong deplorable treatment of women, none so horrific as the death of young Kennedy aide Mary Jo Kopechne.

To be clear, if we were talking about a right-wing senator with the same track record — five years into #MeToo — there would be quite a different reckoning.

Yet Ted, even in death, keeps getting a pass. That this latest treatment comes from the respected prize-winning historian John A. Farrell — ‘Ted Kennedy: A Life’ has already been long-listed for a National Book Award — is all the more upsetting. And for all the claims that this book breaks news about Chappaquiddick — well, anyone familiar with the case won’t find anything new here.

Except, of course, more excuses and blame-shifting.

Here is our introduction to Mary Jo: ‘She was seen by other Senate staffers as attractive but not gorgeous’ — Farrell says this why, exactly? What possible bearing could her looks have on what Ted Kennedy did to her? Is Farrell’s assessment — pleasant-looking enough, not a knockout — meant to be some mitigating factor?

The facts are not in dispute: On that dark night in Chappaquiddick, after drinking and partying all day, Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and into Poucha Pond. The car crashed upside down, under water, with Mary Jo inside.

Here’s Farrell’s verbiage: ‘The car left the bridge.’

How delicate. How passive. As if the car left of its own volition, nothing at all to do with the man behind the wheel.

Ted Kennedy on July 25, 1969, after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of a fatal auto accident

A new biography of Ted Kennedy (RIGHT), out this week, soft-pedals the worst of him: Namely, his callous and lifelong deplorable treatment of women, none so horrific as the death of young Kennedy aide Mary Jo Kopechne (LEFT).

In Farrell’s telling, you’d never know Ted Kennedy had a history of reckless driving, or major issues with alcohol, or that the night his car ‘left the bridge,’ his driver’s license had long since expired.

As Ted ran from the scene, passing inhabited homes and a fire station, he never once stopped for help. The water was shallow. The diver who recovered Mary Jo’s body the next day was certain she had lived for at least thirty minutes, likely much longer, her neck arched back so she could breathe through a small air pocket.

Surely Mary Jo, who had worked for and adored Ted’s late brother Robert, thought this strapping young senator, a storied Kennedy, would save her. Instead, Ted summoned two untrained lackeys to attempt a rescue as he watched and bemoaned his dead presidential prospects.

‘Oh my God,’ Farrell quotes him as saying. ‘What am I going to do? This couldn’t have happened. Can you believe it? I don’t believe this could happen to me.’

I don’t believe this could happen to me.

That tells us all we need to know.

Mary Jo Kopechne was an idealist, devoted to the cause of civil rights, determined to make the world better. She was 28 years old when she died. She was also — despite the shameful intimations made by the media and the Kennedy machine, e.g., what else is a young girl doing out late with a married U.S. Senator? — a virgin.

But to Ted Kennedy, Mary Jo was nothing more than collateral damage.

After the failed rescue, Ted — who would later claim confusion, exhaustion, trauma, and a serious concussion — easily swam back across the pond, a length of four football fields, to the mainland, where he went back to his hotel and slept through the night. 

He woke for breakfast. He called his mistress, Helga Wagner, and debated whom else he could say was driving: One of his aides? Mary Jo herself?

He was spotted by others that morning as well-dressed and unruffled. He talked to two other guests about sailing. He then made the calculation to file a statement with local police, rightly confident that, as a Kennedy, he’d get a slap on the wrist.

If these can’t be judged as the sociopathic actions of a criminal mind, I don’t know what could. Why does history remain so kind to Ted Kennedy? He’s been dead for thirteen years. Why can’t historians tell the truth about him?

‘This is the big hurt,’ Mary Jo’s mother told McCall’s in 1970, ‘the nightmare we have to live with for the rest of our lives: that Mary Jo was left in the water for nine hours. She didn’t belong there.’

That Kennedy used Mary Jo’s heartbroken parents for years afterward — dangling the promise to confess what really happened that night, then leaving them alone at Kennedy events, leaking to the press that: Look! Mary Jo’s parents remain Ted Kennedy supporters! — is also unmentioned here.

We come away, instead, with the longtime Kennedy spin: Chappaquiddick was Ted’s tragedy, the event that kept him from becoming president.

'This is the big hurt,' Mary Jo's mother told McCall's in 1970, 'the nightmare we have to live with for the rest of our lives: that Mary Jo was left in the water for nine hours. She didn't belong there.' (ABOVE) Parents of Mary Jo Kopechne

‘This is the big hurt,’ Mary Jo’s mother told McCall’s in 1970, ‘the nightmare we have to live with for the rest of our lives: that Mary Jo was left in the water for nine hours. She didn’t belong there.’ (ABOVE) Parents of Mary Jo Kopechne

Joan (above) is treated here as pure liability: A drunk who lacked the toughness of Jackie and Ethel Kennedy, who just couldn't hack it as a political wife bred to abide serial unfaithfulness and humiliations.

Joan (above) is treated here as pure liability: A drunk who lacked the toughness of Jackie and Ethel Kennedy, who just couldn’t hack it as a political wife bred to abide serial unfaithfulness and humiliations.

At the same time, Ted’s long-suffering wife Joan was pregnant. The stress of Chappaquiddick, being called upon to be by Ted’s side at Mary Jo’s funeral, caused Joan to miscarry — a tragedy that Farrell gives all of three sentences.

Joan, in fact, is treated here as pure liability: A drunk who lacked the toughness of Jackie and Ethel Kennedy, who just couldn’t hack it as a political wife bred to abide serial unfaithfulness and humiliations. 

Ted’s drinking, drugging and constant extramarital affairs — memorialized in 1992’s blockbuster tell-all ‘The Senator: My Ten Years with Ted Kennedy’ — are never fully factored into Joan’s misery here.

Ted Kennedy once led a reporter to see Joan passed out in the back of her car. He used Joan as a political prop for his 1980 presidential run, leading her to believe there was hope for their marriage, only to cruelly dispose of her after he withdrew. Is it any wonder Joan Kennedy was depressed and self-medicating?

Farrell is remarkably tone-deaf when discussing women and the ways Ted used, objectified, neglected and abused them. Perhaps because, as Farrell notes in his afterward, he gave Ted’s widow Victoria Reggie much of the manuscript to read and weigh in on before publication — highly unusual for an independent work of biography. 

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the book reads less like history and more like pro-Kennedy propaganda, Ted’s issues with women minimized, even as one peer was told that he may have needed to ‘dip into [his] private stock’ of women to share with Ted.

As if women were interchangeable bottles of wine stored in the basement.

Farrell seems almost admiring here, floridly writing that ‘Kennedy sometimes used foreign trips as recreational interludes from his marriage vows,’ his constant cheating glossed up as ‘Ted’s associations with pretty young women.’

Also soft-pedaled here is the damning 1990 GQ profile of Ted, a portrait in drunken lassitude, reprehensibility and predation.

After the failed rescue, Ted ¿ who would later claim confusion, exhaustion, trauma, and a serious concussion ¿ easily swam back across the pond, a length of four football fields, to the mainland, where he went back to his hotel and slept through the night.

After the failed rescue, Ted — who would later claim confusion, exhaustion, trauma, and a serious concussion — easily swam back across the pond, a length of four football fields, to the mainland, where he went back to his hotel and slept through the night.

Kennedy made the calculation to file a statement with local police, rightly confident that, as a Kennedy, he'd get a slap on the wrist.

Kennedy made the calculation to file a statement with local police, rightly confident that, as a Kennedy, he’d get a slap on the wrist.

‘A former congressional page tells of her surprise meeting with Kennedy three years ago,’ Michael Kelly wrote. ‘She was 16 then,’ walking home one night with another 16-year-old page when the Senator’s limo pulled up. He opened the door, displayed a wine bottle on ice, asked if one, then the other, would care to join. The girls said no.

‘He didn’t even know me,’ the page said.

There was the staffer known really as Ted’s ‘pimp.’ The much-too-young girls, always around.

The dinner with Senator Chris Dodd at Brasserie restaurant. After midnight their waitress, Carla Gaviglio, was summoned into their private dining room. As Kelly writes:

Ted, even in death, keeps getting a pass. That this latest treatment comes from the respected prize-winning historian John A. Farrell ¿ 'Ted Kennedy: A Life' has already been long-listed for a National Book Award ¿ is all the more upsetting.

Ted, even in death, keeps getting a pass. That this latest treatment comes from the respected prize-winning historian John A. Farrell — ‘Ted Kennedy: A Life’ has already been long-listed for a National Book Award — is all the more upsetting.

‘The six-foot-two, 225-plus pound Kennedy grabs the five-foot-three, 103-pound waitress and throws her on the table. She lands on her back, scattering crystal, plates and cutlery and the lit candles . . . Kennedy then picks her up from the table and throws her on Dodd, who is sprawled on a chair. With Gaviglio on Dodd’s lap, Kennedy jumps on top and begins rubbing his genital area against hers.’

This sexual assault is addressed fleetingly by Farrell. If that GQ piece had been written and published today, rest assured: Ted Kennedy’s career would be over. He would be cancelled. But to Farrell — boys will be boys, I guess.

Same with the debauched night Kennedy shared with his son and nephew Willie Smith one year later, Smith accused of raping a woman on the beach, Ted so black-out drunk that he stood, pants-less, while watching his own son make out with a girl he’d picked up that night.

Farrell devoted a full seven paragraphs to this appalling incident. 

But hey: Ted Kennedy sure was great legislating for women, right?

Farrell’s evasiveness regarding Ted’s misogyny, abuse and, let’s call it what it is, the manslaughter of Mary Jo Kopechne — should disqualify his book, already getting raves and hosannas from all the expected outlets, as serious history.

Because the sense we get from Farrell — that hoary excuse which should no longer hold up — is: Hey, it was the times.

Well, times change. And time should be up for Ted Kennedy.

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