On July 18, 1969, following a party thanking workers from his brother Robert’s presidential campaign, Senator Edward M. Kennedy drove his car off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Although he survived, his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, did not. A week later, Kennedy addressed the nation from his parents’ house at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

I have requested this opportunity to talk to the people of Massachusetts about the tragedy which happened last Friday evening. This morning I entered a plea of guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident. Prior to my appearance in court it would have been improper for me to comment on these matters. But tonight I am free to tell you what happened and to say what it means to me…

...There is not truth, not truth whatever, to the widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct that have been leveled at my behavior and [Mary Jo Kopechne’s] regarding that evening. There has never been a private relationship between us of any kind. I know of nothing in Mary Jo’s conduct on that or any other occasion — the same is true of the other girls at that party — that would lend any substance to such ugly speculation about their character.

Nor was I driving under the influence of liquor…

...I made immediate and repeated efforts to save Mary Jo by diving into strong and murky current, but succeeded only in increasing my state of utter exhaustion and alarm. My conduct and conversations during the next several hours, to the extent that I can remember them, make no sense to me at all….

...All kinds of scrambled thoughts — all of them confused, some of them irrational, many of them which I cannot recall, and some of which I would not have seriously entertained under normal circumstances — went through my mind during this period. They were reflected in the various inexplicable, inconsistent, and inconclusive things I said and did, including such questions as whether the girl might still be alive somewhere out of that immediate area, whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys, whether there was some justifiable reason for me to doubt what has happened and to delay my report, whether somehow the awful weight of this incredible incident might, in some way, pass from my shoulders. I was overcome, I’m frank to say, by a jumble of emotions, grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion and shock….

...Today, as I mentioned, I felt morally obligated to plead guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident. No words on my part can possibly express the terrible pain and suffering I feel over this tragic incident. This last week has been an agonizing one for me and for the members of my family, and the grief we feel over the loss of a wonderful friend will remain with us the rest of our lives.

These events, the publicity, innuendo, and whispers which have surrounded them and my admission of guilt this morning raises the question in my mind of whether my standing among the people of my state has been so impaired that I should resign my seat in the United States Senate. If at any time the citizens of Massachusetts should lack confidence in their Senator’s character or his ability, with or without justification, he could not in my opinion adequately perform his duty and should not continue in office…

...It has been written a man does what he must in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles, and dangers, and pressures, and that is the basis of human morality. Whatever may be the sacrifices he faces, if he follows his conscience — the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow man — each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of the past courage cannot supply courage itself. For this, each man must look into his own soul.

I pray that I can have the courage to make the right decision. Whatever is decided and whatever the future holds for me, I hope that I shall have been able to put this most recent tragedy behind me and make some further contribution to our state and mankind, whether it be in public or private life.

For the full text of Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick speech, along with an audio recording, visit the American Rhetoric Web site at http://www.americanrhetoric.com

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