Losing a quest for the top, finding a new freedom
Carter's failed challenger carved giant Senate role
On October 12, 1979, CBS correspondent Roger Mudd asked Senator Edward M. Kennedy why he wanted to be the next president of the United States. With the cameras rolling, Kennedy began:
"Well, I'm — were I to make the announcement and to run, the reasons I would run is because I have a great belief in this country. That it is — there's more natural resources than any nation in the world; the greatest education population in the world; the greatest technology of any country in the world; the greatest capacity for innovation in the world; and the greatest political system in the world."
The answer went on for 336 words. If this were a painting, it would be a bad Jackson Pollock, at once incoherent and repetitive. It lacked a core commitment and a sense of passion. Kennedy spoke from a strange, bloodless remove. His failure to articulate a better reason for seeking the job that had been inextricably linked with his name since Bobby Kennedy's death 11 years earlier astonished friend and foe alike.
Ted Kennedy's feeble performance was a symptom, not a cause, of a doomed campaign, and it added bite to the question of the day: Did he really want to run at all?
His opponent for the Democratic nomination would be President Jimmy Carter, a wounded leader who had come from nowhere to win the White House in 1976. As the seams of the Carter presidency came apart, Kennedy had become more seductive about his intentions.
In June of 1979, Carter's favorability rating was at 28 percent. Americans faced double-digit inflation, double-digit interest rates, and long gasoline lines from yet another energy crisis.
But the key issue to Kennedy was universal health insurance. Members of the Kennedy and Carter teams say that if the president had agreed to the health-insurance package so dear to the senator's heart, as he had promised to do early in his presidency, there would have been no Kennedy challenge.
Carter, however, wouldn't buy the $60 billion price tag during a time of dismal economic straits.
There had been a spirited political parlor game in play for years among Washingtonians over when Ted Kennedy would run for president. That he would run was a given. He had to, whether he liked it or not. He was the last Kennedy brother.
Yet there is little evidence that Kennedy ever craved the White House. None of those close to him can cite a private conversation where he displayed a passionate drive to be president. The Mudd interview made that ambivalence embarrassingly public.
In fact, Kennedy had shown mixed feelings about a presidential run throughout his career. He chose not to run in 1972, only three years after Chappaquiddick. In 1976, he again declined, citing family reasons.
"It is my opinion that he didn't want to run," David Burke, who first took the title of chief of staff and Kennedy's longtime counselor, said of the Mudd interviews. "He didn't focus on 'I'm deeply ambivalent,' but it would not have bothered him if it went away nicely."
Kennedy agonized over the 1980 decision throughout the spring and summer of 1979. He talked to a wide circle of friends and met regularly with his inner circle. Paul Kirk, another trusted aide, recalls that at a July meeting his was a lonely voice when he said, "I'm not sure this is a good idea, running against an incumbent president of your own party."
There were legions of other voices: liberals who felt betrayed by Carter, former members of his brother Jack's administration who dreamed of a Kennedy restoration, average Americans hoping that a new Kennedy administration would erase the 16 painful years of war and recessions and social unrest since the last one. In late August, when Ted finally decided to run, he may simply have wanted to stop the noise that had plagued him for years.
Throughout this period, no one in his inner circle appears to have considered Chappaquiddick a serious threat; the echoes of what happened on Poucha Pond were quiet. It seemed like part of the distant past. But the judgment proved to be catastrophically wrong. The character issue would haunt Kennedy through his primary fight with President Carter and beyond.
Only Kennedy seemed skeptical.
"I've got 45 percent," he told a reporter, reflecting his private judgment that he could truly count on the party's core liberals. "The last 6 percent comes hard."
Starting late, short of money and organization, made things tough as well. And then there was the message problem that emerged in Iowa, the first state to hold caucuses, with many rural populist Democrats who might be disposed toward Kennedy but who retained a sense of kinship with fellow farmer Jimmy Carter.
In the spring of 1979, Kennedy had spoken of his admiration for George Norris, the Nebraska senator who carried the flag of the Progressive movement in Congress during the 1930s and never wavered in his support of the New Deal. Norris, like Kennedy, sailed against the wind.
Kennedy might have brought a strong Norris message with him. He didn't. Instead he launched his campaign with a listless theme about leadership.
"Our mistake at the beginning of the campaign was thinking we're at 65 percent, so why would we take tough positions?" recalls Bob Shrum, Kennedy's speechwriter and press secretary during the campaign.
Kennedy looked every inch a contender in Boston. He hadn't yet bloated to the dimensions that later would bring him ridicule. He was thick but not fat. His face was full but not puffy. He was a handsome man.
Yet his verbal clumsiness was already the stuff of legend. Edward Fouhy, a CBS Washington bureau chief in the early '80s, says, "He couldn't articulate an English sentence. He was hopeless on the stump and wasn't great with a prepared speech either."
Nor did he open up in public. After a poor performance on a Sunday morning talk show before the 1980 campaign, a reporter traveling with him on a New York subway told Kennedy he had been awful. Couldn't he open up a bit? Kennedy turned to him and snapped, "What do you want me to do? Lay my intestines on the table?"
What Kennedy could not have foreseen was the emergence of foreign-policy issues into the campaign. On Nov. 4, three days before Kennedy announced his candidacy, the staff of the US Embassy in Tehran was taken hostage. The Iranian hostage crisis dealt a blow to Kennedy in Iowa. It dominated the airwaves; Kennedy could not get on television.
To make matters worse, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day. Carter used the events on Dec. 28 to back out of a debate with Kennedy set for Jan. 7. He stayed in the White House and pursued a Rose Garden strategy. This was also devastating to Kennedy, who had counted on that opportunity to confront his rival before the American people.
Patrick Caddell, Carter's pollster who worked for Kennedy before and after the race, says he was scared only once during the primary season. During in-depth interviews in November and December, his team asked people how they would feel if Ted Kennedy were president.
"A lot of people thought he'd be fantastic," Caddell recalls. "I brought these results to the president. He locked them in his safe and said, 'No one is ever to see this.' "
But Kennedy on the stump had been anything but fantastic. On the day of the Iowa drubbing, he sat over lunch with his inner circle in Hyannis Port to chart his next move. He asked Shrum to stay a minute as others were leaving.
Kennedy was not optimistic. "This baby is going down," he told Shrum, his hand spiraling like a falling plane.
A week after the Iowa loss, Kennedy threw away the old message and spoke his mind in a speech at Georgetown University. He laid out the case against Carter in foreign affairs, saying his inconsistency had emboldened the Soviets.
But his sharp words didn't matter much in the impending contests in his own backyard. He proceeded to lose the New Hampshire and Vermont primaries and the Maine caucuses.
Illinois on March 18 was a delegate feast. For Kennedy, it could be either a potential backbreaker that forces him from the race or a fuel station to stay alive.
If there were proof so far that the Kennedy team had colossally misjudged the lasting impact of Chappaquiddick, it was Illinois. Catholics in the state simply didn't buy his explanation of how it happened, and once they perceived him as a liar, he was cooked. Carter took 155 of the 169 delegates.
Kennedy endured a string of predictable losses in Carter's native South before limping into New York glimpsing his demise. The campaign was broke and in disarray. Shrum had been told to draft a withdrawal statement. Paul Kirk rented a room at the Parker House in Boston in anticipation of a withdrawal announcement there the next day. One poll released the day before the vote had Kennedy down 20 points.
He ended up winning by almost that much, in no small part due to a Jewish vote furious at Carter for joining a UN resolution reprimanding Israel for continuing to build settlements on the West Bank. Kennedy staffers called New York "the miracle."
Kennedy's turnaround prompted Caddell to finally pull the trigger on "the character issue" in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary. Ads were aired that spoke to Chappaquiddick without ever mentioning the word. They included interviews with real people. One said of Kennedy, "I don't believe him." Another said, "I don't trust him." It worked. Kennedy's lead almost evaporated, and he won by a small margin.
Super Tuesday back in those days ended the primary season. Kennedy won two out of the three biggest states and decided to stay in the race to the convention, promising a nightmare summer for Carter. By this point, Carter and his team were livid. Kennedy looked like a lousy loser.
Modern-day conventions are supposed to lack drama. Not the Democratic Party gathering in 1980. They're supposed to lack surprises. Not this time.
The Kennedy team decided to stage its fight over a party rule that bound delegates to the candidate for whom they voted in the primaries and caucuses. The only conceivable rationale for Kennedy to have stayed in was the quixotic hope that he could defeat Carter on the rule and open the convention. As expected, Carter swamped Kennedy on the vote.
Hamilton Jordan, Carter's top political aide, had threatened to block Kennedy from speaking unless he endorsed Carter. Paul Kirk, Kennedy's top negotiator, wouldn't agree to that. But Jordan held firm that the critical vote on the rule must come on Monday, the first night of the convention. He feared a runaway convention if the vote were held Tuesday night after Kennedy's speech.
So Kennedy would not speak unless he agreed to the Monday vote. He did.
Most Americans have assumed that Kennedy was given his night in prime time, as losers always get at conventions. Not this time. Jordan wouldn't afford him that honor. Instead, he forced Kennedy to speak on three proposed economic amendments to the party's platform, aware that Kennedy would use the time for a broader address.
On that Tuesday night, Aug. 12, Kennedy's oration was spellbinding. His words were a fanfare for the common man, transcending the rancor below. He produced a clear manifesto for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party — under siege from Ronald Reagan's Republicans: "The commitment I seek is not to outworn ideas, but to old values that will never wear out. Programs may sometimes become obsolete but the idea of fairness always endures."
Those in Madison Square Garden knew they'd heard something special. There was light applause after he ended with the line, "The dream shall never die," followed by wild, sustained cheering and clapping that ran half an hour.
Kennedy promptly lost altitude two nights later after Carter had delivered his acceptance speech. Kennedy was supposed to appear on the podium with Carter, join hands, and raise them together in the traditional sign of political unity. Instead, in an odd echo of his refusal to shake Edward McCormack's hand in his very first debate as a senatorial candidate, he arrived late and disappeared in a sea of dark suits on the podium. Carter literally had to chase him down for what turned out to be a mere handshake. It was inexcusable behavior for a politician known for his party loyalty.
The run for the presidency was over.
"You never really hear it, but he had to be an extremely lonely man," says Kirk.
But Kirk, like Senator Joe Biden, never saw Kennedy break down.
"There was no period when Teddy went into a black hole over the fact he'd never be president," says Biden, a good friend. Much later, after Biden himself dropped out of the Democratic nomination race in 1988, Kennedy would encourage him to see it as a liberation: "Teddy turned to me and said, 'I promise you there's life after the presidency, and it's good.' "
"His life is a lesson in moving forward," notes Bob Shrum about Kennedy's defeat. "He was 12 years old when a man walked up to the door and said, 'Your brother Joe has just been killed.' There were Kathleen's death, Jack and Bobby's assassinations. How do you do it? You keep on going."
Or, as Carl Wagner, Kennedy's national field director in the 1980 race, put it: "Rock bottom is a very good foundation to build on."
Some hold it was here that Kennedy began his transformation into the legislative giant he would be by the late '80s, that he made himself into a different person. But he didn't think differently. He didn't view life differently.
What did change were his thoughts on the presidency. His loss to Carter freed him to be his own man. But even that wasn't a clean break. David Burke says, "There was no 'I'll run for president, then I'll become king of the Senate.' There was a melding that was much more complicated."
And that's just what Ted Kennedy did. During the '80s, Kennedy was a firewall against Reagan's effort to undermine hard-fought civil rights victories of the past. Working with carefully selected Republican partners, he led the way to strengthen every civil rights bill that came before him. He fought Reagan to preserve and enhance the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to boost funds for AIDS treatment, and to preserve equal funding for women's sports.
Still, he chafed in the minority, in which he had no power to convene the Senate committees. So he got creative. Together with his chief of staff, Larry Horowitz, Kennedy conceived an idea of holding his own hearings on subjects of interest to him. He called them forums. Kennedy would bring experts to talk about such issues as arms control, hunger, and healthcare.
He succeeded in moving legislation because of his reflexive search for a coalition that worked. He lived for the human connection and parlayed it into legislative success. Republicans were an integral part of the plan. Like Lyndon Johnson, he was a great legislative agnostic. He cared little about someone else's ideology other than his own.
Kennedy's work schedule was terrifying. Staffers would arrive at his large suburban home in McLean, where he now lived alone, to brief him on the day's agenda, often at 6 a.m. He would be there, coffee cup nearby, peering over his reading glasses, annotating the mountain of memos that had been left in "the bag" the night before.
"The bag" was a briefcase — sometimes two — just outside his office door into which staff members could put memos for him to read. It would be bulging by the time he took it home, yet somehow, he'd have scribbled on them all by morning.
Through all this, he was known for a thunderous laugh that ricocheted in marble halls. "Chris Dodd said, 'Listen to the laughter if you want to find Ted Kennedy,' " says Jeff Blattner, a key Senate aide.
"It was so obvious," says political aide Bill Carrick. By 1982, Kennedy was already involved in the 1984 race. "He was very definitely, very intensely, 'OK, I'll do all I have to do,' " he recalls. "We campaigned . . . all over the country."
Horowitz oversaw the creation of a detailed blueprint for the possible campaign. Whether Kennedy would actually use the blueprint was never clear. He would face a popular president in Reagan, for starters, and Chappaquiddick was bound to haunt him.
The plan was to establish a credible campaign in Iowa; Kennedy would travel the state by car with the popular former governor and Senator Harold Hughes. He would prepare more intensely for a run at the South, with the goal of securing the support of none other than George Wallace, the former segregationist who was looking to reconnect with the Democratic Party.
John Sasso, who had just helped Michael Dukakis regain the governor's seat in Massachusetts, would run New Hampshire for Kennedy. Tim Russert would be hired as press secretary.
The blueprint, a well-kept secret at the time, didn't sway Kennedy's family members when Horowitz presented it the day after Thanksgiving, 1982, in Hyannis Port. Later, when Kennedy met alone with his three children, they all said no. A yes would have probably opened a run in 1984.
He said no again about a run in 1988. At the time of his decision, in late 1985, he sensed that the Democrats were poised to take the Senate back in 1986. A Democratic takeover would mean the return of the chairmanship of the labor committee for him. He liked the job and loved the place.
"With his success in the minority, he knew what he could do in the majority," recalls Carrick.
Kennedy informed his political team of his decision in December at Hyannis Port. He gave Shrum a vodka to tell him the news. Shrum started preparing a withdrawal statement in the bedroom off the living room where Jack Kennedy had once convalesced from his war wounds and, with 12-year-old Teddy, took turns reading aloud from the epic poem, "John Brown's Body." Ted Kennedy went public in a televised address on Dec. 19. The last line of the statement he delivered was this: "I know this decision means I may never be president. But the pursuit of the presidency is not my life. Public service is."
Tom Rollins, his chief of staff and chief counsel on the labor committee, recalls what happened after a night of serial celebratory libations over the return of the Senate: "I was still drunk at 6 a.m. when I got a phone call. It was Senator Kennedy. 'Boss?' 'Tom, I've decided to take that labor committee.' "
Reagan was now in eclipse, and Kennedy made the most of it.
"It was a rock and roll period," Rollins says.
"He's the best strategist in the Senate," says Joe Biden about Kennedy. "No bullshit. This is a guy who knows the subject matter more than the others. More of his energy is placed in dealing with inside baseball than outside baseball."
As important, Rollins learned to decipher Kennedy-speak, a tongue as opaque to the rest of the country as Hungarian. To wit: "I need you to do this so that doesn't happen, Tom."
"He meant, 'Make sure that [Connecticut Senator Christopher] Dodd moves the ABC child bill up through committee. Otherwise, it will be preempted by the families and medical leave legislation,' " Rollins says.
While Kennedy was known for his domestic achievements, he picked his shots abroad, too. He made four trips to Moscow, two in the '70s to meet with Leonid Brezhnev, two more in 1986 and 1990 to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev.
Kennedy made the 1986 trip with the full support of President Reagan, who wanted a reliable conveyer of information back and forth on arms control. While the pair were poles apart on that issue, both were bent on freeing as many refuseniks as possible from Soviet control. Kennedy helped get many released, including Natan Sharansky.
His trip to South Africa in 1985, in contrast, came with klieg lights and was all Kennedy. The highly publicized foray drew the wrath of the apartheid government and many Republicans in the United States. Apartheid's denial of citizen rights for millions of blacks was a civil rights issue to him, as real as the horrors of the Jim Crow South.
Kennedy enraged the white ruling class by spending his first night in the slum of Soweto at the home of Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu. He visited Winnie Mandela, then wife of Nelson Mandela, the great leader who was imprisoned at the time.
The fruits of his trip was the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which imposed US economic sanctions against South Africa.
Kennedy viewed Bork, a longtime favorite of the hard right, as a threat to dismantle the civil rights gains he had helped advance. This made it personal. Kennedy was also terrified of Bork's judicial vision, what he viewed as its bloodless remove from real people.
Bork had left a long paper trail from his writings while a professor at Yale Law School and later on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He was brilliant, arrogant, and provocative, a forbidding figure with a beard and wild hair.
He called the banning of discrimination in public accommodation provisions in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 "a principle of unsurpassed ugliness." He found no right to privacy in the Constitution and opposed a Supreme Court decision banning the poll tax.
Less than an hour after Reagan had announced his nomination, Kennedy stood in the well of the Senate and delivered a blistering attack against Bork. His speech was already in his coat pocket. The material had been gathered by Blattner and written by Kennedy speechwriter Carey Parker in anticipation of the nomination.
He had no qualms about his rhetoric. Any caution he displayed in the '70s, when he was looking toward the White House, was long gone. He was now the commanding officer at the full height of his power, leading his troops into battle.
Kennedy's speech became known as the "Robert Bork's America" speech. It was the mise en scene that framed one of the most charged constitutional battles of the latter 20th century.
And it was not just a tantrum. It was a savvy tactical move to give him time. The hearings weren't until September, and he needed the summer to prepare his case.
There was near universal consensus that, beyond Kennedy, Bork was his own worst enemy. A man of prodigious intellect, if not emotional intelligence, he scorned most of the help from the White House to prepare for the battle.
On Sept. 15, the opening day of the hearings before the Judiciary Committee, Kennedy interrogated Bork near the end of the day. He went straight at him like a fullback, challenging him on civil rights, privacy, women's rights. This charged exchange set the tone.
During the allotted half hour, chairman Biden kept football scores of the Kennedy-Bork match on 5-by-8 inch cards. It began at 6-0 and reached 24-0 near the end in Kennedy's favor.
When the Judiciary Committee voted on Oct. 6, it rejected the Bork nomination 9-5. Bork demanded a full vote by the Senate. He was turned down there by a 58-42 vote on Oct. 23.
Ralph Neas, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, pulled scores of interest groups behind Kennedy. Bork was really defeated outside the Beltway. Kennedy and Biden needed five southern Democrats to vote against Bork. The task looked daunting until Boston pollsters John Marttila and Tom Kiley ran national polls in August on the situation. What they found was stunning, at first glance counterintuitive, and vital to a Bork defeat.
The last thing southern whites wanted to do, it turned out, was refight the civil rights battle. It was also clear to Democratic senators from the South that their political survival depended on large black turnouts, which would evaporate if a senator voted for Bork.
Kennedy and Biden eventually lined up senators from the Deep South such as J. Bennett Johnston and John Breaux of Louisiana, and Richard Shelby and Howell Heflin of Alabama, among many others.
"We knew we'd beat Bork from Marttila's poll," says Pat Caddell, who was working with Kennedy at this point. "The South wanted nothing to do with this. . . . Bork was not defeated by gerbil groups inside the Beltway. It was run outside the Beltway. We beat him in the South."
If there had been any question before the Bork hearings who ran the United States Senate, there was none afterward.
Sam Allis can be reached at email@example.com.