Last week, during an appearance on the Washington, DC–based Diane Rehm Show on NPR, Ted Kennedy biographer Edward Klein suggested that if Kennedy could witness his own funeral he'd probably crack a joke. "[O]ne of his favorite topics of humor was indeed Chappaquiddick itself," Klein added. "He would ask people, 'Have you heard any new jokes about Chappaquiddick?' That is just the most amazing thing. Not that he didn't feel remorse about the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, but that he still always saw the other side of everything, and the ridiculous side of things, too."
Chappaquiddick, of course, is the area on Martha's Vineyard where Kennedy drove a car off a bridge in 1969. Kopechne, a former campaign worker for Bobby Kennedy and a passenger in the car at the time, drowned at the scene. Ted fled, delayed reporting the accident to police, and subsequently pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident.
Consequently, the notion of Kennedy happily amassing an ever-increasing store of Chappaquiddick wisecracks is pretty morbid — and for some Kennedy detractors, Klein's statement was taken as final proof of Kennedy's fundamental depravity. (As Mark Hemingway wrote at National Review Online: "EXCUSE ME? If that's true, it makes Kennedy kind of a monster.")
But is it true? The source for Klein's claim can be found on page 111 of his book, Edward Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died (Crown). It's a quote from former Kennedy staffer Wayne Owens that was originally elicited by Adam Clymer, Klein's former New York Times colleague; Klein found it in papers stored at the Kennedy Library in Boston.
"Since [Kennedy's] license had been suspended," Owens recalled, "I would drive him home at night. I mean these were really tough, mean times for him. And yet, his old Irish dark sense of humor was wonderful, and he loved stories on Chappaquiddick. You know, if I would hear a good Chappaquiddick joke, he would always want to hear it. He would say, 'What, got any new jokes or any new lines?' "
What we actually have here, then, is evidence that Kennedy sought out Chappaquiddick jokes from one associate, who happened to be his driver, in the weeks following the accident. The motive, however, remains ambiguous: it could have been cheap laughs, or information, or self-mortification.
Klein seems to favor the last option. "In the Kennedy family, tragedy was often handled with stoicism and humor," he tells the Phoenix. "I don't think — not for a millisecond — that he thought the death of Mary Jo Kopechne was a joking matter."
Neither does Scott Ferson, the president of Boston's Liberty Square Group and a former Kennedy press secretary, who calls the notion that Kennedy liked Chappaquiddick humor "despicable." "I worked for him for five years, including the 25th anniversary of Chappaquiddick," says Ferson. "I know how pained he was by [Chappaquiddick] and how sensitively he wanted to handle it."
Problem is, a story doesn't necessarily need to be true to take off. As of this writing, a Google search for "Have you heard any new jokes about Chappaquiddick" yields more than 1100 results. Expect that number to grow.