Driving the foggy crossing from Indian Island the other morning, I thought of the 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne on a similar bridge and the example it set for nobodies like me when deciding who to trust with local elected office.
Our choices matter if you care about the rule of law.
A car accident in which two people go off a rickety local bridge and only one swims to the surface would have been front page news in a small weekly like The Leader, but only for a week or two.
After all, even a small county sees accidental death almost every week. We grieve with the family, shake our heads over the missteps of the fallen and kiss our sons and daughters a few extra times as they head out the door.
What made 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne’s death a big story from coast to coast was the way it revealed the flimsiness of the rule of law in the face of political might.
The man at the wheel when Mary Jo died was a somebody.
He had been drinking. He nonetheless got himself out, swam to the shore and walked away, to a nearby hotel. He checked in, passed out and didn’t call for help for ten hours, though he did call his lawyers. Mary Jo, rescue workers said, appeared to have lived in the sinking car for as long as two hours, until she used up the last of the breathable air trapped in the car with her.
By the time the somebody called the authorities, an army of men with advanced degrees from the nation’s “best” universities was mobilized to fix it. Not for Mary Jo. They were there to fix things for the man who drove the car off the bridge and left her to the crabs in Poucha Pond.
A narrative was crafted to put him in the best possible light. The man’s nationwide network of political contacts bore down on local officials so the inquest would be held in secret.
Nobodies like us might have felt better about the matter, had the somebody faced a stiff-spined local prosecutor, an even-handed judge and a jury of locals.
Instead, he was exempted from the customary treatment given to law-breakers. Operations of local police and courts were frozen solid while the somebody’s all-powerful political party rallied behind him. He was not frog-marched in for questioning and fingerprinting and hours of waiting. Just seven days after the wreck, he was allowed to plead guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was patted on the fanny with the minimum sentence.
In the end, Mary Jo Kopechne’s death was treated as an inconvenience to the somebody, who some thought could be president like his big brother. He gave a long self-pitying speech. People felt how terrible it was that he almost bore the consequences of his actions.
He flourished. Mary Jo rotted.
As we attract somebodies to this emerald place, I have to wonder if we are electing the kinds of nobodies who will stand firm when the spawn of somebodies go too far.
The man who allowed Mary Jo Kopechne to drown was patriarch to several generations who turned out to be textbook examples of white privilege. One escaped a rape charge, ignored ski patrols to play football on skis, crashing to his death against an aspen at Aspen. The somebody raised a Congressman’s son who crashed his car into a Capitol Hill barricade after a drinking session. A nephew, also elected to Congress, has become a leader in the anti-vaccine movement.
Don’t worry. I don’t consider this a Democratic Party characteristic. A few years after Mary Jo’s death, I watched the Republican Party nominate and then elect a petty crook, who was, after much foot-dragging, held to account for wire-tapping, political dirty tricks and other outrages against the separation of powers.
Forget who the somebody was. On foggy mornings we should think of Mary Jo Kopechne and go looking for local candidates with no ambition to cosset the somebodies. I hope we always can find sturdy nobodies whose loyalty is to the rule of law.
Dean Miller is Editor of The Leader.