Yet it was the specter of Chappaquiddick that Edward Kennedy, the youngest brother, never could shake.
"That night on Chappaquiddick Island ended in a horrible tragedy that haunts me every day of my life," Kennedy wrote in a memoir, "True Compass," to be published posthumously on Sept. 14. The Massachusetts senator died last week at 77 following a yearlong battle with brain cancer.
Kennedy said his Catholic faith helped sustain him as he wrestled with guilt over the events of July 18, 1969, when he drove a car off a bridge into a pond on the tiny island. His own anguish, he said, paled in comparison with the suffering endured by Kopechne's family.
"Atonement is a process that never ends," he wrote.
The book offers an intimate look at the personal failings, tragedies and triumphs of the famed Kennedy family's last surviving brother. He said he agreed that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he gunned down John F. Kennedy.
He also recounted how his other assassinated brother, former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, asked then-President Lyndon Johnson to make him an envoy to try to broker a peace deal to end the Vietnam War. If Johnson had agreed, Edward Kennedy speculated, Robert Kennedy might have not have run for president in the 1968 campaign when he was shot to death.
Amid the regrets, Kennedy asserted his zest for what he considered to be the good life, but he mocked the exaggerated reports of his personal excesses.
"I have enjoyed the company of women," he wrote. "I have enjoyed a stiff drink or two or three, and I've relished the smooth taste of a good wine. At times, I've enjoyed these pleasures too much. I've heard the tales about my exploits as a hell-raiser - some accurate, some with a wisp of truth to them and some so outrageous that I can't imagine how anyone could really believe them."
The memoir is to be published by Twelve, a division of the Hachette book group. The 532-page book was obtained early by The New York Times and the New York Daily News.
In it, Kennedy said his actions on Chappaquiddick on July 18, 1969, were "inexcusable." He said he was afraid and "made terrible decisions" and had to live with the guilt for more than four decades.
Kennedy drove off a bridge into a pond. He swam to safety, leaving Kopechne in the car.
Kopechne, 28, a former worker with Robert Kennedy's campaign, was found dead in the submerged car's back seat 10 hours later. Kennedy, then 37, pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and got a suspended sentence and probation.
He wrote that he had no romantic relationship with Kopechne, and he hardly knew her. He said they were both getting emotional about his brother's death and decided to leave the party that was hosted by Robert Kennedy's former staffers. He made similar statements in the days following the crash.
He said he had a full briefing by Earl Warren, the chief justice on the commission that investigated the Nov. 22, 1963, shooting of JFK in Dallas. He said he was convinced the Warren Commission got it right about Oswald and he was "satisfied then, and satisfied now."
In the book, Kennedy wrote candidly about his battle with brain cancer and his "self-destructive drinking," especially after the 1968 death of his brother Robert.
After his brothers' assassinations, Kennedy said he was easily startled at loud sounds, and would hit the deck whenever a car backfired.
He expressed regret over getting drinks with nephew William K. Smith in Palm Beach in 1991, after which Smith was charged with rape. He was later acquitted.
He also explained why he decided to run for the presidency in 1980, saying he was motivated in part by his differences with then-President Jimmy Carter. He criticized Carter's go-slow approach to providing universal health care.
As a 9-year-old boy at the Riverdale Country School in New York, Kennedy said he would hide under his bed, petrified of a dorm master he thought was sexually abusive.
The book was written with the help of a collaborator and was based on contemporaneous notes taken by Kennedy throughout his life and hours of recordings for an oral history project.