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Remembering Chappaquiddick: Ted Kennedy’s legacy as a master of crisis communication August 30, 2009

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Senator Ted Kennedy of Massuchusetts passed away after losing a battle to brain cancer. He will always be remembered as the Lion of the Senate, and perhaps the last member of Camelot, but his ability to survive a major political crisis will always define his legacy. ABC’s Susan Donaldson James wrote an interesting article recently on the crisis that nearly ruined Kennedy.

In the summer of 1969, Kennedy, who was a year away from reelection to the Senate, was involved in a horrific accident when the car he was driving went off a bridge into 7 feet of water and killed his 28-year old passenger named Mary Jo Kopechne. Kopechne worked for Kennedy’s brother, Robert, in the 1968 presidential campaign, and was supposedly a victim of drunk driving. Kennedy, who left Kopechne to drown in the car and waited 10 hours to call the police, was instantly ruined. Though Kennedy insisted that his actions were indefensible, he sought to repair his image and to secure his political career with a major speech to the people of Massachusetts. Though he clearly evaded responsibility while simultaneously accepting it, Kennedy managed to avoid serious consequences and remained a key figure in the Democratic party.

Feel free to watch the following clip to see Kennedy’s speech and determine why it was so effective:

Discussion Questions:

1.  What was it about Kennedy’s apology that made it seem as if he did not really accept full responsibility?  In other words, how did he try to minimize his responsibility in the wrongful death of Mary Jo Kopechne?

2.  Why was Kennedy successful in winning the forgiveness of voters? In short, how was the apology effective in answering the accusations made against him?

3.  The Chappaquiddick accident will forever be a part of Kennedy’s legacy.  That said, should we really consider his famous apology a success?

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