For the Love of Teddy
James Reston's inexplicable Kennedy crush.
The press corps romance with the Kennedy family was never the same after Ted Kennedy drove Mary Jo Kopechne to a watery grave in the summer of 1969.
Not everybody in the press adored the Kennedys, of course. But those who did—like famed New York Times reporter, editor, and columnist James "Scotty" Reston—attended to the family's legend like priests on retainer.
Reston's high point—or low, depending on your frame of reference—came on Saturday, July 19, 1969, when Kennedy's submerged 1967 black Oldsmobile Delmont 88 was discovered in a Chappaquiddick Island tidal channel, just off Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
At the time, Reston owned a home on Martha's Vineyard, as well as the island's weekly Vineyard Gazette. He was on the island the weekend of the accident and like any good newsman, he reported the story and phoned it into the Times when he learned that police were questioning Kennedy.
Let's turn to John F. Stacks' informative biography Scotty: James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism(2003) for the rest of the story:
[Reston] dictated the first paragraph, the lead in which the essence of the story is usually conveyed, with this first sentence: "Tragedy has again struck the Kennedy family." The victim was not mentioned until the fourth paragraph. Later in the day, [top Times editor] Abe Rosenthal called [Reston's wife] Sally Reston at home in Edgartown, asking her to advise Scotty that there had been a few changes made to Scotty's story. (In the edited version, the real victim was in the lead.)
That Reston viewed the accident as a tragedy for the Kennedy family rather than for Mary Jo Kopechne or her family reveals how smitten he was with the clan. But there's more! Rosenthal immediately assigned Joseph Lelyveld—who would later become the executive editor of the Times—to the Chappaquiddick story, and he arrived on Saturday afternoon to relieve Reston. Stacks continues:
Scotty treated Lelyveld like a weekend guest. Dinner came first—pasta, as Lelyveld remembers it. During the meal, Scotty opined that Ted Kennedy could still be president: time would pass and the incident be forgotten. Sally disagreed. "Scotty, how could you be so cynical?" she asked. Scotty was a bit surprised that Lelyveld had been sent. "The story is over," he told Lelyveld.
Reston filed no new copy for the late edition of the paper. The next day the two visited the accident site, where Lelyveld took notes from two kids who said they had discovered the car and called police. "Lelyveld took notes; Scotty took a fishing rod out of his car and began fishing with the boys. With that, he washed his hands of the story," Stacks writes.