Kennedy's not-so-happy Charlottesville anniversary

Although his aptitude for campaigning and policy has since guided him to a long, storied career in Democratic party politics, Edward Kennedy didn't always display such great judgment. Three years before he outran his Republican opponent to become a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, he tried to outrun Albemarle County cops as a 26-year-old UVA law student.

Fifty years ago this month, on the night of March 14, 1958, Deputy Sheriff Thomas "Mac" Whitten spotted Kennedy running a red light in an Oldsmobile convertible. When Whitten gave chase, Kennedy allegedly doused his headlights to avoid detection, but Whitten caught up with the brother of then-Senator John F. Kennedy and issued him a ticket for reckless driving, racing with an officer to avoid arrest, and operating a motor vehicle without an operator's license.

A week later, Whitten was sitting at the same intersection when he spotted Kennedy driving the same Oldsmobile.

"He did exactly the same thing as before," recalled Whitten in Leo Damore's 1988 book, Senatorial Privilege. "He raced through the same red light, cut his lights when he got to the corner, and made the right turn."

After winning a series of continuations, Kennedy finally testified at his June trial that there had been a short circuit in his tail lights, something to which a mechanic was able to testify after examining the car days after the night in question. Nevertheless, a judge convicted Kennedy on all charges, and the soon-to-be-statesman paid a $35 fine.

The incident might have been chalked up to youthful indiscretion but for the fact that Kennedy was involved in more trouble behind the wheel over a decade later. On the night of July 18, 1969, while driving back from a Martha's Vineyard party honoring female volunteers in his brother Robert's 1968 presidential campaign, Kennedy drove his car into a channel on nearby Chappaquiddick Island. The senator did not report the incident until hours later, when the body of his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, had been found.

Calling his decisions that night "indefensible," Kennedy explained he had been "overcome, I'm frank to say, by a jumble of emotions– grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion and shock," and denied that he had been driving under the influence of alcohol.

He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident; his two-months' jail sentence was suspended. Although Kennedy wasn't reported in any further traffic scrapes, many political observers believe those incidents had an impact on his decision not to seek the presidency in 1972 and 1976. Calls to Kennedy's office for comment were not returned.

–photo courtesy of Michael Tyznik via Flickr