I watched the movie Chappaquiddick last night with my family. We didn’t realize until halfway through the movie that we were watching it on the 49th anniversary of the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. It was a movie whose lessons are fresh today — because they are timeless. Human nature does not change.
You all know the story: Sen. Teddy Kennedy drives his car off a bridge, and it lands upside down in a tidal pond. He escapes; his companion does not. He waits ten hours to call the police. The Kennedy machine wields its power to protect Teddy. He is eventually charged with a minor crime, and gets his wrist slapped. He gives a nationally televised speech. The people of Massachusetts forgive him, and re-elect him to the Senate — but his dreams of being president are over.
The film is extremely hard on Teddy, who comes off as a callow, privileged rich boy who is reckless and totally self-centered. He is the beneficiary of having powerful elites willing to cover for him, and blessed by having a public willing to believe any lies that enable them to keep loving the Kennedys. Chappaquiddick is not a Republican film by any means. It’s a movie about the corruption of character, and how powerful men — the Hyannis Port conclave included Ted Sorensen and Robert McNamara — will conspire to protect their own, suborning justice and telling any lies necessary to achieve their ends. And it’s about how the people are eager to be lied to, and will believe any story that makes them feel good. It’s a dark story.
It is a good companion piece to Spotlight, the Oscar-winning story about how the Boston Globe got the Church sex abuse story. The same themes are present. In the film, when Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) turns up at Mary Jo Kopechne’s funeral, wearing a phony neck collar and looking pious and sad, I couldn’t help thinking about the lecherous Cardinal McCarrick and his fraudulent public persona as the Catholic Church’s point man in America to address the abuse scandal.
I also thought during the movie about an armed forces friend who worked at a very senior level in the Pentagon during the Iraq War. This man is a straight-arrow patriot, but the things he saw and heard first-hand during his time there badly shook his confidence in the leadership. He observed top people lying to the public about the war, and others in the hierarchy going along with it for careerist reasons. When he told me about this over a decade ago, he was in grief. This was not what he had signed up for.
More and more, I think about how this is an age of disillusionment. It’s well known — and documented by pollsters — that Americans have lost faith in our institutions since the 1960s. It is hard to know who and what to believe in, or to muster that faith. However, would we prefer to be like the people of Massachusetts back then, believing the fake Ted Kennedy narrative? Would we prefer to be the kind of people who believe the Donald Rumsfeld stories about how great things were going in Iraq? And so forth, across institutions.
I’d like to think the answer is no, that we want the truth, no matter how difficult it is to handle. But I don’t believe that. Most of us will take a comforting lie any day of the week, and twice on Sunday. Watching Chappaquiddick, and all those lower-level officials and others in Massachusetts eager, genuinely eager, to serve the Kennedys, and to give them what they wanted — well, it turns your stomach. But if you think that’s not most of us — and if you think that couldn’t be you, in the right circumstances — you’re telling yourself a pleasing story that’s not true.
Some of you have heard this story from me before, but I’ll make a confession. Watching this movie, I thought about myself in March of 2000, in Israel covering the Pope’s visit, and standing one afternoon with a crowd in the courtyard of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. We were waiting for John Paul’s motorcade to arrive from Bethlehem. I was a faithful Catholic then, and was overjoyed by the possibility of seeing the Pope up close. As we waited, I spotted an American cardinal across the courtyard, talking to another cardinal, one I did not recognize. I quickly made my way through the crowd, approached the two cardinals, took the American’s right hand, knelt and kissed his ring. He acknowledged me momentarily, then went back to talking to the other cardinal. I skittered away.
I was so proud of myself. Proud! There I was, unashamed to kiss the ring of a cardinal, not like those liberal Catholics I couldn’t stand. There’s nothing wrong with showing respect to a cardinal, but there was everything wrong with what I did, because I did it in a craven spirit. I loved the idea of standing outside of myself, thinking, “How grand it is for us to be here, all Catholics, in this special place on this special day, and me here with Cardinal Law, showing my respect and deference, like the good Catholic that I am.” It was kitsch, what I did — and mind you, if the liberal Cardinal Mahony had been standing where the conservative Law was, I wouldn’t have moved an inch across that space to greet him. I had standards, you know.
It disgusts me to think of that shameful moment, and has every time I’ve done it, post-2002. Let me emphasize that even if Cardinal Law had been a saint, what I did still would have been shameful, because of my motivation. I wanted the approval of a man in power, a man I looked up to. I wanted to feel that I belonged, that I had been “certified,” to use Walker Percy’s term, by a celebrity — indeed, a Prince of the Church.
Every day of my life, for the rest of my life, I hope in some small way to repent of having been that obsequious suck-up to power and privilege. To know that one has it within oneself to be that guy, though — it’s humiliating, but ultimately in a good way.
Chappaquiddick is an excellent movie. I watched it, and watched it with my kids, because a Christian friend told me that it’s a strong warning against making and worshiping idols. She’s right.
UPDATE: Lee Podles comments:
When I was a federal investigator I had a course in how to detect lying. We watched various films and read transcripts to learn to spot the clues.
The instructor then gave us the transcript of the television interview that Ted Kennedy gave about Chappaquiddick. Almost every line contained several indications that he was lying.
The instructor then asked the Boston Irish in the class what they thought of Kennedy now. The Boston investigators paused a long while, and then said they liked Kennedy because at least he felt uncomfortable lying.