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My Favorite Convention

June 2024
3min read

Carter, Kennedy, and Me

Twenty years on, it’s hard enough to recall Ted Kennedy as a serious presidential threat; harder still, with this year’s primaries effectively over by mid-March, to imagine a sitting President and his main challenger for the nomination fighting all the way from January in Iowa to August’s convention in New York. But the noxious mix of double-digit inflation, a gas shortage, and his own earnest leadership had left Jimmy Carter so vulnerable that a summer 1979 California poll showed Ted Kennedy getting nearly 60 percent support in a three-way nomination race with Carter and Jerry Brown. The President’s answer to this news was uncharacteristically forthright and fiery: “I’ll whip his ass.” Kennedy proved to be one political problem Carter understood how to attack.

Ted Kennedy’s candidacy for the White House had seemed inevitable since the death of his brother Robert in 1968, and he remained on pollsters’ presidential shortlists even after Chappaquiddick; by the time he unofficially announced, on Labor Day 1979, Ted’s long-dreamed presidential bid had, for liberals in the fractured Democratic party, become the political equivalent of a Beatles’ reunion—and with a similar risk of anticlimax. Despite a damaging interview with Roger Mudd (who asked the surprisingly difficult question “Why do you want to be President?”), some unfocused early campaigning, and a national rallying to the President after American hostages were taken in Iran on November 4, Kennedy survived almost being knocked out of the race early and eventually won enough significant states (New York, California, New Jersey, Connecticut) to keep alive. By the time the two men came to Madison Square Garden in August, Carter was numerically in command for renomination by more than three hundred votes, but the Kennedy delegates promised a hard floor fight; Kennedy called for an “open” convention, allowing all the delegates to fall where they wanted. If he lost this procedural vote on the first day, the question would be not simply how Carter might unify his party but what Teddy would say to his romantic army of loyalists. Would he accept a draft? Many on the floor wore “I’ll Walk With Wimpy!” buttons, threatening to follow the head of the Machinists’ Union, Mr. William “Wimpy” Winpisinger, out of the convention if Kennedy wasn’t the nominee.

To the political press assembling in the Statler-Hilton Hotel across Seventh Avenue from the convention, the looming slugfest had even more ugly promise than the pitched Reagan-Ford battle four years earlier. As a seventeen-year-old whose only previous work had been bagging groceries, I found my new job as the Chicago Tribune ’s convention newsroom assistant (gofer) pretty thrilling. But it seemed that even the Tribune ’s stable of worldly political reporters—Jon Margolis, Bob Greene, Ray Coffey—were expecting high drama as much as the party leadership was dreading it.

Arriving early on my first nervous morning, I neglected to press a vital second switch on the coffeemaker, and after the silver-haired Ray Coffey spat his cold mouthful on the newsroom floor, my fellow gofer happily observed, “Mr. Coffey doesn’t like your coffee.” Jon Margolis, the paper’s White House correspondent, next gave me an easier job: to keep calling the New York Post news desk to make sure its revered columnist Murray Kempton had come in O.K. after their night out drinking together. I didn’t succeed at this task either. Kempton had still not checked in by the time later that day when Jon gave me my first credentials and took me over to the convention. There, among the many milling delegates, we saw the great Kempton walking a little gingerly through one of the tunnels beneath the Garden seats, keeping the cool cement wall close on his left.

Kennedy lost the procedural vote that first day and then released his delegates, but it wasn’t so easy to unclaim them. The talk of a Kennedy draft persisted, hardly discouraged by the senator. The night of the convention’s second day, he gave the speech of his life, the one thing most people who saw the 1980 convention remember. Minutes before he was to take the podium, copies of the speech were handed out for reporters on deadline. I ran my copy in an adrenalized sprint from the Garden through the wall of hot-dog and T-shirt carts (“A Republican Shot JR” was the big seller) and across to the hotel newsroom, where Ray Coffey was waiting at his typewriter, listening to the broadcast. When I got back from my delivery, Kennedy’s resonant baritone filled the hall (“Thank you, ah … thank you very much”). By the speech’s end, women around me, even a number of female reporters, were wet-eyed as he soaringly conceded, “for all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” Then the place went pounding, screaming crazy for half an hour. He’d bowed out, but as the blue Kennedy placards waved, his cause was clearly not Carter’s. The people around me were ecstatically divided.

The President’s acceptance on the last night was almost sheepish (“I’m wiser than I was four years ago”), even forgettable except for a flubbed line that wasn’t his fault. Just before his planned homage to Hubert Humphrey, who was then dying of cancer, a woman several rows behind Carter created a small explosion in some private protest. Clearly shaken, Carter gave tribute to “Hubert Horatio … Hornblower.”

After accepting the nomination, Carter and Vice President Mondale waited a long time to be joined at the podium by Kennedy, who had decided to watch the address in his room at the Waldorf-Astoria, then leave for the Garden. He “could have made better time on a skateboard,” Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell, later wrote. After everyone who was remotely known in the party had been called on-stage to congratulate the President, Kennedy at last appeared but would not raise his hand with Carter’s in a feigned show of unity. Carter would look over, Powell bitterly recalled, and “each time Teddy would dance away.” Even the balloons refused to cooperate; workers had to struggle to get them to drift down. The politically disastrous, theatrically wonderful grudge match was over, never to be repeated.

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