...In the Driver's Seat

The Inspector's Opinion: The Chappaquiddick Incident by Malcolm Reybold Saturday Review Press; 312 pp.; $7.95

CHAPPAQUIDDICK REMAINS Edward M. Kennedy's political and moral Achilles' Heel to this day, seven years after his car accident first made headlines. The ugly and persistent questions surrounding The Chappaquiddick Incident (it is invariably capitalized) surface every time the Senator from Massachusetts is considered as a presidential possibility. His actions on the night of July 18, 1969, have never been coherently explained; and his involvement in the accidental death of a young, attractive campaign worker has immeasurably damaged his reputation--personally and politically. Kennedy made tortured and wrong decisions in those early morning hours, decisions that have haunted him. It was to be the first hint of scandal behind the wall of Camelot.

Kennedy's story has always been the same. The weekend of the annual Edgartown Regatta there was a party for former RFK campaign workers in a cottage on Chappaquiddick Island, off Martha's Vineyard. A girl named Mary Jo Kopechne decided to return to her motel in Edgartown shortly after 11 p.m. Kennedy volunteered to drive her to the ferry, before it closed for the night. They never made it. Kennedy missed a turn and drove his black Oldsmobile 88 over the side of Dyke Bridge, the automobile plunging into Poucha Pond. Kopechne was found the next morning in the upside-down car, her face pressed into the footwell in a futile attempt to survive by breathing the remaining air trapped there.

It was not until 10 a.m. that morning that Kennedy finally arrived at the police station with a written statement that was notable only for its brevity and vagueness. He could not spell Kopechne's name, so he left a blank. The witnesses quickly left Martha's Vineyard, Kennedy heading to Hyannisport and an emergency meeting of the New Frontier brain trust, where a statement explaining the affair was hammered out. On the night of July 25 Kennedy told a vast television audience a well-scripted tale of mental confusion and fear after the accident, heroic rescue attempts, and a half-crazed swim back to Edgartown. Most remained unconvinced he was telling the full story.

The formal inquest--months later, because of legal maneuvering by Kennedy attorneys, and closed to the public--did little to dispel the mystery. Witnesses revealed that Mary Jo had left her pocketbook and keys at the cottage, hardly the actions of someone eager to return to her motel room. She had a .09 per cent alcohol level in her blood, (equivalent to 3 1/2 to 5 ounces of eighty to ninety proof liquor), although her friends testified she had not been drinking heavily at the party. Deputy Sheriff Christopher Look observed a dark sedan with Massachusetts license plates that began with "L7" and ended with "7," turn down Dyke Road in the direction of the bridge at 12:45 a.m. Kennedy's sedan's plate number was L78-207, but Kennedy's testified the accident occurred at about 11:25. There were other inconsistencies, and much of the testimony at the hearing conflicted.

Judge Boyle, on the basis of the evidence presented, concluded that Kennedy was not driving to the ferry and that his turn onto Dyke Road was intentional. Boyle found him guilty of negligence, contributing to Kopechne's death. The sentence was suspended.

But the questions continued. Why were the two alone in a car that late at night? Where were they heading, if not for the ferry? How much had they to drink? Was Kennedy under the influence when the car careened off the bridge? And most importantly, why didn't Kennedy call for help, and why did he wait so long to report the accident? The diver who retrieved Kopechne's body, John Farrar, said that Mary Jo could have been saved by prompt rescue action, and in light of that evidence the last question is the most damning.

MALCOLM REYBOLD'S novel The Inspector's Opinion advances unusual answers for some of these questions. His theory explores the contradictions in testimony and confusing sequence of events that night and concludes that Kennedy was not driving the car when it went off the bridge.

Reybold offers a mystery story, complete with a classic detective-hero: retired Scotland Yard Inspector Charles Darby, visiting America while writing his memoirs. Darby is invited to present his findings on Chappaquiddick at a cocktail party hosted by P. Faulkner Truliman. Truliman, a Long Island multimillionaire, arranges for members of the party to read selected portions of the testimony. Darby moderates and points out relevant pieces of evidence; placing the testimony in chronological order and marshalling a string of 92 "facts." These "facts" are the pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle that Darby reassembles in the last chapter.

The Inspector hypothesizes that Kennedy and the girl left the party at approximately 11:30 and deliberately drove to the beach on the other side of Dyke Bridge. There, in privacy, they shared a bottle of liquor (accounting for Mary Jo's high alcohol intake) and perhaps more. The two returned to the cottage after an hour, and as a joke hid from Kennedy's cousin Joe Gargan and Paul Markham. Gargan and Markham set off in another car to find the Senator and Mary Jo. Tiring of the joke, Kennedy followed in the Oldsmobile at 12:40. On the Main Road, however, Kennedy ran into trouble. He slowed when he saw a car approaching. It turned out to be Deputy Sheriff Look, instead of his cousin. When Kennedy saw the police uniform, he turned down Dyke Road. There, parking on the left side of the bridge and leaving the motor running, he and Mary Jo waited. When a car appeared (this time actually Gargan and Markham) Kennedy panicked, believing it was the police and afraid of being caught in a compromising situation. He left to hide in the woods. Mary Jo, unfamiliar with the car, tried to turn around and lost control, driving off the bridge. The horrified Kennedy and his cousin and Markham, who by this time had joined him, desperately attempted to rescue the trapped girl, without success. Convinced she was dead, the three decided to "stone-wall" the accident: they would tell the people at the party that Mary Jo had left by herself to take the Edgartown ferry. Gargan and Markham returned to the cottage, Kennedy swam to Edgartown. In the morning, if all went as planned, they would contact the police and explain that Mary Jo was missing. When she was discovered in the submerged car, it would appear that Kopechne had wandered--lost--from the Main Road to her death.

What went wrong, then? Why did Kennedy come forth and admit he was the driver? Darby feels that when the police found the car first it changed things. Instead of appearing to be concerned about Mary Jo's welfare, Kennedy and the party-goers would have to face intense questioning. By releasing a sketchy statement, Kennedy could buy enough time to get everyone off the island and prepare a more elaborate cover story.

Inspector Darby does not extend his conclusions. He refuses to assign blame for the accident or cover-up that followed, insisting that Kennedy is not a criminal:

A culprit is defined as one "guilty of a crime or fault." Senator Kennedy pled guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing personal injury without making himself known. As I have just explained, I do not consider him guilty of this charge, because he did not cause the injury, he did not drive the car off the bridge. Judge Boyle concludes that there is probable cause to believe Mr. Kennedy operated his vehicle negligently, thus contributing to the death of Miss Kopechne. Again--not guilty: He was not operating the vehicle at the time of the accident. I cannot, therefore, point out guilt on the basis of a crime committed, of a law of the land broken. And it is not for me to weigh and presume final judgement of fault in others.

Will Rogers, politely, would have called that applesauce. Assuming Reybold's mouthpiece is correct--that Kennedy was an observer and not a driver--it makes the Senator guilty of perjury and probably conspiracy and misprision: crimes far more serious than the original charges.

Reybold's thesis is too elaborate, and there are too many gaping holes in it. Like most conspiracy theories, it involves too many complex and fortuitous coincidences. Darby always accepts the convoluted explanation for the simple one. Deputy Sheriff Look may very well have seen the Oldsmobile at 12:45, and Kennedy may have lied about the time of the accident. Does that incident have to fit into Darby's theory? Indeed, there is a more logical conclusion. Kennedy knew if he placed the time of the accident at 1 a.m. it would destroy his story about driving Mary Jo to the ferry and her motel in Edgartown. What motives would the press assign to a handsome Senator alone with a woman at one in the morning? The delay in reporting the accident can be attributed more to fear than it can be to an involved and co-ordinated conspiracy.

With his reluctance to deal with Kennedy's guilt, in a way, Reybold has written an elegant whitewash of the Chappaquiddick affair. He is too concerned with THE Kennedy, as he terms him at one point in the book, and incredibly insensitive to the moral questions raised by Chappaquiddick about equal justice and the power of certain people in American society. And what about Mary Jo Kopechne, left to drown? Her mother later asked bitterly whether Kennedy considered her a fish, to leave her overnight in a submerged car. It is a disturbing question, one Reybold never asks.