As I drove home today after seeing Chappaquiddick, it occurred to me that the film’s most powerful message isn’t one that the media is discussing much.
Yes, the film is riveting. Yes, it largely sticks to history. Yes, it will appeal to conservatives more than liberals. And yes, it convicts not only Ted Kennedy, but also the gross privileges that powerful people enjoy in this country.
But what struck me most about both the film and the bit of history it concerns is the role that ordinary citizens played in denying Mary Jo Kopechne and her family justice.
It is one thing to watch with dark amusement as Joseph Kennedy’s hired army of lawyers and spin doctors work their damage-control magic on behalf of his only remaining son….or, more aptly, his family’s only remaining shot at the presidency. It is quite another to watch the police chief get intimidated into aiding the cover-up. It’s one thing to watch with sympathy as the local first responders pry Mary Jo’s body out of the submerged vehicle and voice regret that they were not called much sooner to save her. It’s another to listen to some of the interviewed citizens at the end of the film abet Ted’s decision not to resign by expressing their continued support for him.
Most damning of all is what we didn’t need the epilogue to tell us: Ted Kennedy went on to become “The Lion of the Senate,” the fourth-longest reigning Senator of the United States, and also a presidential candidate in 1980. To accomplish these things, one requires more than the best lawyers, aides, and spin doctors that money can buy; one needs the sustained loyalty of enough constituents. Sure, Teddy never became president. The American People at least made sure of THAT. But plenty of voters allowed him a serious shot at doing so, long after his misdeeds were known and his political career should have been over.
Maybe the real lesson of what happened at Chappaquiddick is this: for all we (claim to) resent powerful figures who betray our trust, we enable them with our stubborn self-interest, celebrity-worship, and plain old partisanship when we go to the polls. Sure, many of us never voted for an involuntary manslaughterer. But how many of us talk a mean talk about the evil of government funding Planned Parenthood, yet vote repeatedly for those who have betrayed the unborn again and again? How many of us complain about career politicians while repeatedly propping up the John McCains and Thad Cochrans of government? How many of us make a show of denouncing life-ruining debauchery by the guy across the aisle, yet shrug when “one of our own” engages in it? How easy is it to descend into fervent “whataboutism” when we don’t want to face the truth about someone for whom we voted?
One of my favorite quotes by author J.R.R. Tolkien is from one of his letters:
“The most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”
Of course, Tolkien’s point is impossibly stringent, taken too literally. If we never voted for anyone who seeks power, we’d never vote for anyone. But his real point about power-seekers should be heeded more than it is: we need to be critical, even suspicious of them. Chappaquiddick shows us what can happen when we aren’t.