It's very plain to see: Ted doesn't want it
They are all playing "What's Happening to Ted?" It is, after all, the favorite political game of the week, running neck and neck with reruns of the Super Bowl. The senator is rolling a million into a shoestring and the fans are out in search of the whys.
"Why?" the political sportswriters ask a Kennedy adviser.
"Afghanistan," he answers,"Iran. Brezhnev. The ayatollah." Kennedy began running against Carter's economic policy and now he's the first walking wounded of the second cold war.
"Why?" they ask another pol.
"Chappaquiddick," he says. The issue won't die. The campaign is drowning in doubt.
"Why?" they ask a media mogul.
"The press," he muttered. They're making Carter look like a statesman and Kennedy look like a bumbler.
Finally they ask a Kennedy strategist with an Iowa Hangover and a case of New Hampshire Dreads and he answers: "Everything is wrong."
Well, I don't usually play this game in print. If I bet on politics I'd be in hock up to my second mortgage. I was the last in the crowd to believe that Kennedy would run.
But like everyone in Massachusetts I'm a long-time Kennedy watcher. It comes with the territory. And this campaign just doesn't compute. Everything is wrong.
Whatever you used to say about Kennedy, you never would have called him inarticulate. Whether you agreed with him or didn't agree with him, you never would have called him uncertain, floundering, bumbling. There was a sense that he knew in his gut where he stood, what he stood for.
Those who've followed him know that he can be incredibly distracted at times. He clicks out and nobody's home. But watching him now, going through the motions of campaigning, I feel embarrassed, as if I were watching a great athlete striving for a comeback with bad knees. I want to change the channel.
His voice is strained, his timing is off, his eyes are glazed and his energy is drained by bad news or bad back or bad timing or bad karma. Everything is wrong.
But one impression keeps percolating up through the "everything"; one sentence keeps recurring in my brain: The guy doesn't want it.
It's written in his body language. It's in his eyes, his speech patterns, his erratic behavior. It's even in the calm, almost depressed affect. The man doesn't really want to be in Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire. He doesn't want to be asked again about Chappaquiddick, about his sex life, about the shah.
Before the Iowa vote, when I talked with Joan, I shared my own gut impression with her. She listened, as she does, intently and then sat a few seconds thinking before she answered.
"You really HAVE to want it. You have to want it so bad you really can taste it. Otherwise you wouldn't be able to put up with all that's thrown at you - including all the articles, insinuation, and all the stuff.
"You have to want it so bad and know you are the best because otherwise you could be deterred. You could read all the junk and start to cry every other minute . . . You just have to have that vision straight ahead. Ted has that. Otherwise, how could you take it? Because it's a bitch, frankly."
She is right. You have to want it so bad you can taste it. Or else you can't take it. That, I think, is her husband's problem.
Looking at him from the stands, I see a man running for President dutifully, fatalistically, unhappily. I see a complicated man with a lot to win by losing. Privacy, peace, family, personal freedom.
If Ted runs and loses, he exorcises the past. He's done it, he's run for President and doesn't have to do it again. If he runs and loses, he exorcises the fear. He has survived. He is, in a very real sense, a free man.
Kennedy was pushed into this race by internal and external pressures. His relief and delight in deciding has been followed by the depression of running. I'm no more a shrink than a sports announcer, but it looks to me like Ted Kennedy just plain doesn't want it. And that's why everything is wrong.
Ellen Goodman is a Globe columnist.