Chappaquiddick, Apollo 11, and Obergefell: Anniversaries aligned

Would Ted Kennedy have survived Chappaquiddick had the Apollo 11 moon landing not served as a distraction? And would his attack on Robert Bork been as successful as it was had it been launched by someone else?

(CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

America is remembering two anniversaries this summer. First, on July 20th the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Second, July 18th marked the 50th anniversary of an event far more infamous than famous: Chappaquiddick, the incident in which the late-Senator Edward Kennedy (D. MA) drove his car off a bridge resulting in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. Historians have long noted the strange coincidence of the timing of the two events and the likely impact such a coincidence played in the young Senator’s political future. Less noted, however, is the somewhat tangential connection the two events have to yet a third anniversary marked this summer, the fourth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision, in which the Court (in a 5-4 split) took it upon itself to virtually redefine the socially-central institution of marriage.

Begin, first, with the moon landing and Chappaquiddick. The third and last of the Kennedy brothers was already looking ahead to 1972 in that tumultuous summer of 69. Certainly and understandably, he and his family had more than ‘qualms’ about such a run, given the horrible and tragic fates suffered by his two older brothers. Yet, all three brothers were motivated, first, by the drive and determination of their father, Joseph Sr., to attain power and legitimacy through public office (preferably through the highest office in the land) and, second, by the memory of their oldest brother, Joe Jr., who had originally been groomed for the task, yet had died a heroic death in World War II.

Edward—Ted for short—was the last in line to fulfill his father’s dreams and expectations, and 1972 appeared to be a providential year to pick up the torch left by his fallen brothers. The divisions roiling the country over Vietnam, social change, and race relations, to name just a few, were growing in intensity and seemed unlikely to diminish under the leadership of Richard Nixon, the man his older brother had beaten in 1960. It’s not hard to imagine the campaign themes Kennedy could run on; ‘his sacrificed brothers’ dreams only partially fulfilled with the landing on the moon,’ with ‘much work left to be accomplished.’ Kennedy charisma with a ‘hope and change’ message versus the dour Nixon and four years of domestic and international strife. A perfect moment.

Such must have been the thoughts of Kennedy as he bounded up the steps of that cabin near Marth’s Vineyard on the evening of July 18th to host a party for six young women—all in their twenties—and five of his older male friends. What happened next is shrouded in mystery. What is known is that roughly twelve hours after the accident Kennedy would finally report to the police that he had driven his car off a bridge with a young lady inside, but only after police had already discovered the car.

This was in the days before 24/7 cable news cycles, when events—at least events falling somewhat short of something as catastrophic as a presidential assassination—wouldn’t be reported to the public until the day after the event. Thus it was that as the news of Chappaquiddick began to surface, the world and its journalists were fixated on what at the time seemed to be one of the most important achievements of mankind, the landing of a man on the moon.

Most historians would agree that the moon landing was at least fortuitous for Kennedy’s political career. It diverted both public attention and journalistic resources from full and immediate coverage and investigation of the accident and bought Kennedy and his phalanx of advisors time to construct what, today, we would call a “narrative”. This phalanx were, in the main, the creators and conservators of the great “Camelot” myth—men such as the academic Ted Sorenson and former Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara. There were the so-called ‘best and brightest,’ who had had helped shape the “Camelot” mythology that enveloped the presidency of Ted’s older brother, Jack. The time bought by the moon landing was a precious gift assisting their attempt to salvage that myth from the cold waters off Chappaquiddick Island.

Indeed, it would be a full week before Kennedy would finally address the issue on television.

Yet, if Chappaquiddick had politically wounded the man whose supporters would later label ‘the Lion of the Senate,’ it hadn’t politically killed that lion—and a wounded lion can be a dangerous thing. Kennedy would bide his time, passing on running for the presidency in 1972 and, again, in 1976. In 1980, with President Jimmy Carter’s poll numbers sagging amidst “stagflation” on the domestic front and and the Iran Hostage crisis on the international stage, Kennedy judged Chappaquiddick was in the past and determined it was his time to make his run. This resulted in one of the more painful moments in television history. Asked in an interview with journalist Roger Mudd, at the very start of the campaign, why he wanted to be President, Kennedy offered a rambling, incoherent response which left no doubt that the man who had spent much of his adult life preparing and maneuvering for the highest office in the land really hadn’t given any thought as to just why he should hold it. Kennedy’s insurgency rapidly dissipated and he soon withdrew from the race, the dream over—even if Kennedy would entertain hopes throughout the 1980s that it wasn’t really over.

Which brings us to the connection between these two events—the moon landing and Chappaquiddick—and the third historical anniversary of the summer, the Obergefell decision.

By 1981, Kennedy was in free fall, both politically and personally. He would soon divorce his wife Joan, and tales of drinking and womanizing, never far from the surface, would bubble up, including one 1985 incident with his drinking buddy, Senator Chris Dodd (D. Conn), involving unwanted sexual advances on a waitress at a popular Washington restaurant.

Politically, for the first time in his Senate career, Ted Kennedy found himself and his party in the minority. Frustrated, he determined that redemption could be had primarily by turning his efforts to thwarting the Reagan administration. For example, in a case of proven Russia collusion, Kennedy reached out through back channels to then-Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, hinting he might run for president, again, in 1984 or 1988, and offering to help Andropov explain the Soviet position to the American public by, for example, setting up television interviews for him. Reagan officials would later state they were aware of Kennedy’s overtures, but weren’t much worried about them.

Then, in 1987, after the June announcement by Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell, of his impending retirement from the bench, President Reagan nominated the venerable Judge Robert Bork. Kennedy and his supporters had expected as much. Within 45 minutes of the announcement of the nomination, Kennedy took to the Senate floor and in a nationally televised speech and viciously declared:

Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.

“Robert Bork’s America” was nothing of the sort. It was, in fact, an America in which the legislature legislates and the judiciary adjudicates—not the other way around. Kennedy’s secular progressive cohorts had for several decades been achieving in the courts the policy ends they couldn’t achieve at the ballot box, with Roe v. Wade being the prime example. Bork’s nomination threatened all of it.

The results of Kennedy’s speech were two-fold. First, and not inconsequentially, it marked, if not the beginning of the descent of our political discourse to its present nadir of complete incivility and anger, then certainly a singular and defining moment in that descent. The verb and the practice “to Bork”—that is, to completely and dishonestly destroy a person’s character for political gain—would enter the nation’s vocabulary, as we witnessed just a year ago in the ‘Borking’ of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

More importantly, it worked politically and sunk Bork’s nomination, thus giving us Justice Anthony Kennedy. Of the six Republican votes cast against Bork, four were from Senators representing the Northeast, home to a large contingent of working-class Democrats who were crossing party lines to vote Republican in the 1980s but for whom the Kennedy mystique still held some sway. Would the same speech given by, say, Chris Dodd from Connecticut, have had the same impact? Possibly, but not likely.

It is hard to imagine just how different our politics and law might look today if just three of those Republicans had voted in favor of Judge Bork, for Justice Anthony Kennedy proved to be anything but the ‘mainstream’ conservative he was billed to be when he was nominated to the Court after Bork. Over roughly the next three decades, Justice Kennedy would prove himself to be a swing vote on the Court, often swinging the Court to the outcome most sought by the secular Left.

Most notably, it was Justice Kennedy who would pen the majority opinion in the infamous abortion case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 in which the Court ruled:

[A]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Some twenty-one years later, Justice Kennedy would take the “right to define one’s own concept of existence” as his own by redefining for the rest of us the central meaning of the word, “marriage,” in the Obergefell decision forcibly legalizing gay marriage. As Sherif Girgis noted on this site four years ago, “the Supreme Court didn’t just confect a new right to same-sex civil marriage. In some ways, it inaugurated a new phase in American law, culture, and religion.”

Would Ted Kennedy still have survived Chappaquiddick had the Apollo 11 moon landing not served as a distraction? Perhaps. And would the attack on Bork been as successful as it was had it been launched by someone other than Kennedy? Again, perhaps. But as the historian David McCulloch has noted, “History is who we are and why we are the way we are.” And the way we are—all the political rancor, all the “Drag Queen Story Hours,” all the suppression of speech, all the loss of businesses and jobs for those who refuse to submit to the New Orthodoxy, all the threats to our religious liberties—stems, at least in part, to this history.

(Editors’ note: In the original posting of this essay, Justice Brett Kavanaugh was erroneously identified as “Brent”.)

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Alan L. Anderson 17 Articles
Alan L. Anderson teaches theology at the Chesterton Academy of the Sacred Heart in Peoria, Ill.


  1. A good piece, but the author overrates the Kennedy ‘mystique’. The central point of Chappaquidick was simple – confronted with a crisis situation, Teddy panicked and a young woman died while he got a good night’s sleep before even reporting the incident. The republicans would – rightfully – have made that a central point in any campaign.

    The fact that the voters of Massachusetts forgave him (he should have voluntarily resigned) and continued to elect him time after time is their fault.

  2. It’s just not accurate to say that justice Kennedy, redefin[ed] for the rest of us the central meaning of the word, ‘marriage'”. In 2015, the majority of people understood that getting married is what two people did when they loved each other, were strongly attracted, and wanted to spend their life supporting one another. Marriage is a way to celebrate that. It continues to be that way today.
    Even for devoutly religious people in 2015, marriage was never really about male-female procreation and child-rearing, as was lamely claimed in the Supreme Court case. Objection to gay marriage was always clearly rooted in the belief that God didn’t approve – an argument that couldn’t be made before the by-design secular court.
    It’s time to stop pretending that Kennedy did anything more in Obergefell than weigh the evidence as to whether an existing law (federal marriage – not marriage in a church) was being provided, without reasonable justification, to one group in preference to another. Clearly it was and that’s what he ruled.

    • But Justice Kennedy DID do something more than “weigh the evidence…” During testimony in early 2015, as the swing vote on the Supreme Court, he remarked on traditional marriage: “This definition [of marriage] has been with us for millennia, and it’s very difficult for the court to say, oh, well, we know better.” He spoke with forked tongue…

      The court then presumed to usurp the legislative power when it issued its fatwa in Obergefell v Hodges (1995). The federal government first refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, and then overruled the explicit marriage laws in over twenty states.

      Justice Scalia, in his addendum to the Justice Roberts dissent, said this about that: “Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court. The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact—and the furthest extension one can even imagine—of the Court’s claimed power to create “liberties” that the Constitution and its Amendments neglect to mention. This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.”

    • What balderdash. Justice Kennedy could point to nothing in the constitution that said anything about gay marriage. The constitution does not mention marriage. Marriage, for over 200 years, was left to the states to regulate. Until a defective intellect like Kennedy, who wanted to force a particular political position on the country, got involved. The utter nonsense that marriage only has to do with looooooooove is stupid and baseless. I loooooove my dog. Can I marry it? There is no reason I cannot given Kennedy’s rationale.

    • Jordan, are you going to claim that He loves incest, multiple partners, pedophilia, or any number of other perversions, too, because after all “God loves love?”

      Your intellect seems to be especially clouded.

    • Jordan,
      God is love and He commands us to love one another but Christ was very explicit in Scripture about who and what constitutes marriage.
      It’s certainly fair to disagree, not everyone follows the same beliefs, but for professed Christians to disregard Our Lord’s own words does seem odd to me.
      God bless you. I know Jesus loves you and He died for you out of love.

    • Jordan, you are completely ignorant. Anyone who thinks that God approves of two men inserting their privates into each others nether regions and then calls that love has lost their mind

  3. Interesting to see this ‘remembering ‘ of the 1960s, as we celebrate the Feast of St.Ignatius today , the Jesuits having helped nations to know what true love is , in the truth of God , who Is Love – in His holiness, His power, majesty and judgments and generosity , wants us children to take in that love , into the darkness and hardness of our hearts , often infiltrated by bestial spirits / powers , that bring the lie that this life is nothing , thus reincarnation and animal existences and ways .
    Devoid of the joy and gratitude for life , a gratitude that needs a Person, The Father , one tends to fill the fears with lusts , glorifying pagan themes filled with such lies , ignorant that their envy towards us humans and hatred towards The Father is what gets taken upon us , in various antilife attitudes and choices .
    The truth of the joy and gratitude to The Father with which our Lord takes on His human nature , to help us to participate in same , thus to help deliver us from the lies and related perceived lacks , with the idols that follow – thank God for every life that has struggled through centuries , to share The Truth , in hazardous travels, to reach into hard to reach depths and darkness of human hearts .
    May our Lord in His mercy , through the Precious Blood , deliver us and our family lines from all sins of omission and commissions of having been unfaithful to Him as well .
    Glory be to The Father , Son and The Spirit .

    • Yes to St. Ignatius, but today there are Jesuits, and then there are Jesuits…All Jesuits that I have known for decades have been solid, BUT methinks they are in the minority and certainly shielded from view in favor of the likes of Fr. James Martin, S.J. and company.

      So, in addition to St. Ignatius, the science of Apollo 11 might also call to mind a more convoluted and Jesuitical time, that of Galileo and Cardinal Bellarmine, S.J. Here are four hopefully intriguing nuggets:

      First, when Bellarmine took lightly the earlier work of Copernicus (1543), he had not actually read it, but only the Introduction. At the time it was thought Copernicus had written the introduction, but in fact it was written by “Osiander, a Lutheran pastor who was trying in this way to make it [Copernicus] acceptable [as theory and not fact] to fundamentalist prejudice” (Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955, p. 101).

      Second, when Galileo later advanced the Copernican view, with the sun at the center of the solar system, the antennae were up and he was hauled on the carpet, in two trials in 1616 and 1633. After the first trial he agreed to still teach his new science as theoretical, and not as fact, but then—after publication of his Dialogue in 1632—was tried again in 1633 and convicted for still continuing to teach. The restrictive notice in his file—to not teach–was in all likelihood placed there without his knowledge by an enemy (Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter, New York: Walker & Co, 1999). (Galileo corresponded with his daughter, a Dominican nun.)

      Bad trial outcome over a lesser disciplinary offense and by a more routine commission (not a Council). Looking for any excommunications we have to turn to the Lutheran ecclesial community, which excommunicated Galileo’s contemporary, Johannes Kepler, for teaching the reality of elliptical planetary orbits, rather than Aristotelian-circular.

      Third, so, what of the more INFLUENTIAL JESUITS TODAY? Mainstreaming of active homosexuality, and “ideological colonization” of Amazonia with engulfing indigenization—
      elder’s totems (?), a non-celibate and seminary-exempt (?) priesthood, usefully ambiguous “deaconesses”, and syncretic convergence of natural ecology at the expense of universal Christology and moral theology.

      So, fourth, the confusion of ANOTHER avoidable Galileo fiasco in the making? Meanwhile, four centuries prior to Bellarmine and Galileo, the Dominican THOMAS AQUINAS made this open-ended statement about the ZERI-SUM FALLACY of scientific facts versus Scriptural Revelation:

      “Reasoning is employed (in another way), not as furnishing sufficient proof of a principle but as showing how the remaining effects are in harmony with an already posited principle; as in astronomy the theory of eccentrics and epicycles is considered as established because thereby the sensible appearances of the heavenly movements can be explained; not however as if this proof were sufficient, SINCE SOME OTHER THEORY MIGHT EXPLAIN THEM” (Summa Theologica, cited in L.M. Regis, Epistemology, MacMillan, 1958, p. 455, caps added).

      The issue today is how to do authentic inculturation versus fatuous and calculated subordination to local color—THE SON AT THE CENTER (Heb 13:8) versus a (Jesuitical?) chameleon church.

  4. Excellent article Mr. Anderson. You must have read Zad Rust’s Teddy Bare. Mary Jo Kopechne went to a Catholic High School in Orange NJ, Our Lady of the Valley. So did many of my friends a few years after she did. She ought not to have hooked up with Ted Kennedy. So idolized were the Kennedys in NJ by Catholic Democrats that an uncle of mine bragged about how Teddy got out of this sinking car and swam to shore. Not a mention of the girl his drunk driving killed who was from our town. Kennedy never apologized to the Kopechnes. Not a word. Nice guy.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Chappaquiddick, Apollo 11, and Obergefell: Anniversaries aligned -

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.