NEW YORK -- After 20 years of silence, the parents of Mary Jo Kopechne say the only satisfaction they received in the aftermath of their daughter's drowning at Chappaquiddick is that it kept Sen. Edward M. Kennedy 'from becoming president.'
In an interview published in the July issue of Ladies' Home Journal magazine, Joseph Kopechne, 76, and his wife Gwen, 71, described their bitterness and continuing grief over their daughter's death July 19, 1969, in the back seat of the senator's car.
Mary Jo died when Kennedy's Oldsmobile plunged off a narrow bridge on the tiny Massachusetts resort island of Chappaquiddick, near Martha's Vineyard, after a late night party with Kennedy campaign workers.
Kennedy, D-Mass., said in a statement released late Thursday there was a full investigation and he wished there was more he could do to ease the Kopechne's pain. 'I took full responsibility for the tragedy at the time and I still do,' Kennedy said.
The Kopechnes said they got little emotional support from Kennedy and sat in frustrated silence as Mary Jo's name 'was dragged through the mud.'
'I have expressed my remorse and responsibility to my own family, to the Kopechne family and to the people of Massachusetts, and I express those sentiments again,' the Kennedy statement read.
Joseph Kopechne said at the couple's home somewhere in Pennsylvania that the only satisfaction he and his wife have is that 'Mary Jo's death kept the senator from becoming president.'
Kennedy did not report the accident to police until nine hours later, leading to widespread suspicion that he and the 28-year-old blonde were having an affair that would hurt his political career if it became public knowledge.
Kennedy pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of leaving the scene of an accident and was given a suspended sentence. His driver's license was suspended for a year.
'I have told everything I know about the accident,' said Kennedy in the statement. 'I only wish it were in my power to do something more to ease the continuing pain that I feel and that Mr. and Mrs. Kopechne feel for Mary Jo's loss.'
Mrs. Kopechne expressed resentment that 'nothing decent' was reported about her daughter at the time, and the four other unmarried women campaign workers at the party did nothing to explain her daughter's presence in Kennedy's car.
'I'm angry at every one of those girls,' she said. 'They should try to explain. Somebody is hiding something. I think all of them were shut up. I think there was a big cover-up and that everybody was paid off. The hearing, the inquest -- it was all a farce.
'The Kennedys had the upper hand, and it's been that way ever since.'
The Kopechnes did not go to court over their daughter's death but accepted a $90,904 settlement from Kennedy and $50,000 from an insurance company.
Part of the money went to build the house they live in with such mementos of Mary Joas her portrait, her favorite stuffed animals and an autographed picture of John F. Kennedy, for whom she worked in the 1960 presidential campaign.
The Kopechnes said their daughter admired President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, but not the senator.
'She said he was just a good politician. Period,' her father said.
The Kopechnes said their daughter, a graduate of parochial schools, once considered becoming a nun. At the time of her death she was hoping to marry a man in the Foreign Service. They said she would not have been unfaithful to him because, the mother explained, 'She wasn't a fickle girl.'
The Kopechnes met twice with the senator at his request to discuss the accident, but Mrs. Kopechne described the meetings as 'ridiculous' and said they didn't learn anything about her daughter's death from him, nor did they ever hear him say he was sorry.
'I want him to tell me what happened,' she said. 'Can't he relieve us of this? There must be something he could tell me that would lift this heavy burden from my heart.'
'He was worried about himself, not Mary Jo,' her husband said.
The Kopechnes said their contact with the senator has been infrequent in recent years. He calls when he is in the area, campaigning or making public appearances, they said.
'We get a phone call just to find out how bitter we are and whether we're going to be cooperative,' said Mrs. Kopechne.
'Hell, you could see right through it,' said her husband. 'We could have said some nasty things about him and it wouldn't have done him any good.'
'If I hadn't been in shock when he called,' Mrs. Kopechne said, 'I would have said to him, 'Did you go up to my daughter's grave?''