Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and a lesson from history for President Trump

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
President Jimmy Carter applauds as Sen. Edward Kennedy waves to cheering crowds of the Democratic National Convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden, Aug. 14, 1980. (Photo: Bob Daugherty/AP)

President Trump began his reelection campaign almost as soon as he took office in 2017, and a host of Democrats seeking to be their party’s candidate are all preparing to run against him. But what if he faces a challenge for the Republican nomination?

A new book from Yahoo News Senior Political Correspondent Jon Ward —”Camelot’s End” — tells the story of the last time a sitting president faced a challenge that seriously threatened to unseat him. 

Before 1980, only three times in American history had a president seeking reelection failed to win the nomination of his own party.

Each of these three instances had happened during the tumultuous period just before and after the Civil War.

In 1852, Millard Fillmore, who had ascended to the presidency on the death of President Zachary Taylor, lost the Whig Party nomination to Gen. Winfield Scott. Four years later it happened again when President Franklin Pierce lost the Democratic nomination to James Buchanan. And in 1868, President Andrew Johnson, who had narrowly escaped removal from office by impeachment, sought reelection as a Democrat but was defeated for the nomination by Horatio Seymour, who in turn lost the election to Ulysses S. Grant.

 Yet in the fall of 1979, every expectation was that President Jimmy Carter, who had narrowly won the presidency over Gerald Ford three years earlier, would be the next to suffer this humiliating fate. An Associated Press/NBC News poll in September showed Carter with a 19 percent approval rating.

Other surveys showed that Democrats preferred Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts to be their nominee by a 2-to-1 margin.  

Kennedy made his candidacy official in early November 1979. “We have been sinking into crisis, yet we hear no clear summons from the center of power,” Kennedy said. “Conflicts in directions confuse our purpose. Government falters. Fear spreads that our leaders have resigned themselves to retreat.”

The core of Kennedy’s critique: Carter was a weak leader.  

“Never before had a sitting President, an elected president, with command of both houses of Congress and the party machinery, been so challenged by his own people,” wrote journalist Teddy White. “What was even more remarkable was the nature of the challenge — a charge of incompetence.”

Sound familiar?

If President Trump is challenged from within the Republican Party in 2020 — whether by former Ohio Gov. John Kasich or Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah or someone else — the accusation will be a similar one: that he is unfit for office.

But for a serious challenge to emerge from within his own party, the president will likely have to be so politically weakened that his unpopularity threatens the reelection of large numbers of Republican members of Congress. That is what (almost) happened to Carter, and while Trump has built his career on defying conventional wisdom, that is the scenario that poses the greatest danger to his renomination.  

And there’s one other lesson from history: Carter, after fending off Kennedy, went on to lose the election to Ronald Reagan. In recent decades, all three of the presidents who were seriously challenged for renomination (Carter, Ford and George H.W. Bush) lost their bids for another term.

The passage below is excerpted from “Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight that Broke the Democratic Party” by Yahoo’s Jon Ward.

It will be published by Twelve Books on Jan. 22, 2019.

The year 1979 began on a strong note for President Carter. He clinched the peace agreement he had initially reached the previous fall between Egypt and Israel at Camp David, and finalized a normalization of relations with China — concluding a process begun by President Nixon. It once again showed the nation that he possessed unusual abilities.

“Suddenly, they’re not laughing at Jimmy Carter anymore,” wrote Martin Tolchin in the New York Times Magazine at the end of 1978. The Camp David agreement had “laid to rest the competency issue” and “made [Carter] a man to be reckoned with at home and abroad.”

That was a premature conclusion. Carter’s charisma and grit may have paid off in his pursuit of a Middle East peace agreement, but he wasn’t having much success on issues that more directly impacted the average American. Inflation was up again to 11 percent in May 1979, from 6.8 percent at the beginning of 1978. By the end of 1979 it would be at 13 percent. The purchasing power of the middle class had been under strain for years, and now it was being obliterated. Buying a home or a car was increasingly out of reach for many Americans.

The economy was stuck in neutral, with the industrial sector in full collapse, roiling the middle portion of the country where jobs and pensions had been easy to come by for years. The Soviet Union was building up its military. And there was great concern about the rise of Japan as an emerging economic superpower. Violent crime had been rising in the nation for over a decade, with murders doubling since 1966 to the highest point in American history. There were 21,460 murders in 1979. By comparison, in 2010 the U.S. population had grown by almost 100 million people yet homicides were down to just over 14,000, though that number rose to 15,696 in 2015.

The nation needed strong leadership, but Carter struggled to provide it. “For the part of his job that involves leadership, Carter’s style of thought cripples him,” former Carter speechwriter James Fallows wrote in an Atlantic magazine article published in the spring of 1979. “He thinks he ‘leads’ by choosing the correct policy; but he fails to project a vision larger than the problem he is tackling at the moment.” Fallows felt that Carter’s weakness was that he approached problems as “technical, not historical” and that he had a “lack of curiosity about how the story turned out before. He wanted to analyze the ‘correct’ answer, not to understand the intangible irrational forces that had skewed all previous answers.” Theodore H. White would write a few years later in his book “America In Search of Itself: The Making of the President 1956-1980” that Carter “seemed to believe that if he could grasp all the facts and figures of a problem, he would understand its dynamics.”

Fallows also charged that Carter was actually “bored and impatient” with the domestic challenges facing everyday Americans, like inflation. He accused the president of becoming distracted and entangled by the “allurements of foreign affairs: the trips on fabulous Air Force One, the flourishes, twenty-one-gun salutes, and cheering multitudes along the motorcade routes. More important,” Fallows wrote, “was the freedom to negotiate with foreign leaders without constant interference or nit-picking from congressmen and senators, the heady dips into worldly secrets in rooms lined with lead to protect against eavesdroppers—all the excitement and trappings that go with dealing in momentous global matters that can mean life or death for all mankind.”

Days after the Fallows article came out, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that the move among Democrats away from Carter and toward Kennedy “seems like destiny to me.” The very next day, five liberal Democratic congressmen, including Representative John Conyers of Michigan, announced they were starting an effort to “dump Carter” and “make it irresistible” for Kennedy to run for president. A write-in effort on Kennedy’s behalf was already under way in New Hampshire.

The heightened anxiety of the time—from gas lines, to rising costs for basic goods, to unemployment—was reflected in the public’s desire for a stronger form of leadership in the White House. More than half of the country—55 percent—still thought Carter was honest in a June CBS News/New York Times poll. But 66 percent said they wanted someone “who would step on some toes and bend some rules to get things done.” Democrats in the poll overwhelmingly said they wanted Kennedy to be their nominee in 1980, with 52 percent for Kennedy to 23 percent for Carter, and 8 percent for California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Beyond economics, Americans were worried that their country was “in deep and serious trouble” because of “moral threats which cut right through the social fabric,” according to one survey by Democratic pollster Peter Hart in Wisconsin. Hart’s results showed widespread concern over “a lack of morality and religion and the breakdown of the family structure.” People said they were “afraid that people have become too selfish and greedy, that the people are apathetic and just don’t care.”

Hart’s survey in Wisconsin showed a desire for “a reemergence of the more traditional approach to life and a turning away from the more publicized free-wheeling attitudes of the 1960’s and 70’s.” This should have given the Carter White House some reassurance that Kennedy, whose life bore all the hallmarks of excess and privilege, might not be as formidable a foe as the polls showed. But when things are going badly and you’re getting blamed, it’s hard to think clearly, and the Carter White House was spooked.

The New York Times columnist Tom Wicker noted that many of those polled about Kennedy supported him despite holding less liberal views than he did on health care and government spending. “He is a glamorous figure with a great name,” Wicker wrote. “Those who are trying to draft him are looking for a winner.”

Carter remained publicly defiant about his political future, despite his tanking popularity. One day after the June numbers appeared, he hosted several dozen congressmen at the White House for a briefing on the Panama Canal treaty, which was struggling to gain support. The House members were seated at round tables, in groups of ten or so. Carter went from table to table. While he spoke to one group, he was asked by Representative Toby Moffett of Connecticut how he felt about the 1980 election. Carter claims that Moffett asked him if he was even going to run for reelection, “which was kind of an insult to an incumbent president.”

“Of course I am,” Carter told Moffett.

Moffett persisted. “What about Ted Kennedy?” he asked.

“I’m going to whip his ass,” Carter said.

Representative William Brodhead, a Michigan Democrat, was taken aback.

“Excuse me, what did you say?” he said.

Moffett cut him off. “I don’t think the president wants to repeat what he said,” he told Brodhead.

Carter corrected him. “Yes I do,” he said. “I’m going to whip his ass.”

 

*****

 

A month later, Carter’s swagger looked absurd. America was melting down. An energy shortage had caused gas lines around the nation, and was now spiraling out of control. A Brooklyn man was shot at a gas station in front of his pregnant wife. Another Brooklyn man was stabbed to death in a line dispute at a gas station. Truckers went on strike, putting the nation’s distribution system under strain. When one trucker tried to break the strike, he was shot and injured by a sniper. Another was shot and killed. There were two days of violent riots in Levittown, Pennsylvania.

Carter’s advisers in Washington told him to get back from a trip to Asia as soon as possible. Four days of rest in Hawaii for Carter and his wife Rosalynn, who were both exhausted from a brutal previous few weeks of travel, were whittled down to less than two hours. They landed in Honolulu, spent fifteen minutes at a reception in their honor on the grounds of Hickam Air Force Base, and waited for Air Force One to finish refueling.

Carter flew back to D.C. and promised to address the nationwide energy crisis. The White House reserved time on national television for July 5. Carter went to Camp David on July 3 to prepare. But then, one day before the speech, he abruptly canceled it. He had given so many speeches on the energy issue that he felt the country was no longer listening to him. But the impression of panic that he gave off upset even those who were supportive, such as Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, the Connecticut Democrat. “Why . . . the man doesn’t deserve to be president,” Ribicoff exclaimed when told of Carter’s decision to cancel his speech.

And then Carter disappeared from public view. It emerged that he was staying at Camp David with no explanation of when he would return. The nation was stunned. The commander in chief had fled to his mountain hideout with no word as to what he was up to. Even after Carter had been at Camp David for a day and a night, White House staff largely had no idea what was going on. “Most White House officials remained in the dark as to who particularly was in on the discussions, how long they would go on and when the President would return,” the New York Times reported on July 7.

The mystery surrounding Carter’s unplanned, abrupt decision to disappear from public sight was so thick that when a group of eight governors—all of them supportive of Carter—were summoned at a day’s notice to visit with the president, they were asked questions by the press about whether Carter was seriously ill. It was left to the governors to reassure a flustered public about the well-being of their commander in chief. “My observation, as a physician, is he looked very well and healthy,” said Indiana governor Otis R. Bowen, a Republican. “I know for a fact that he ran a couple of miles this morning.”

Brock Adams, Carter’s secretary of transportation, called Bert Lance [the director of the Office of Management and Budget] and asked him to intervene with Carter. “Brock said, ‘Bert, I think you ought to talk to the president. I’m concerned about the situation. I’ve lost accessibility to him, I think other people have and I’m just concerned about where we’re going.’ And nobody had ever said that to me before,” Lance said. “So I called the president early the next morning and it must have been four-thirty or five o’clock because I never had lost any sleep over my own circumstances but I was losing sleep over what I thought was happening to him and happening to the country as a result.

“He just obviously was not in control,” Lance said. He told Carter “things were crumbling not only here but around the world and he ought to start making some move to restore his position as being the leader of our country.”

Carter, according to Lance’s account in an interview with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, admitted to his friend that he had returned from Japan and essentially panicked. “When I came back from Tokyo and I saw what was taking place I felt like the walls of the White House were crumbling in around me,” Carter said. Lance bucked him up with a pep talk, telling him he was listening too much to other people.

“There are some things that you can see that he did extremely well as long as he was what he was, and that’s a tough-minded individualistic leader who knows his own mind, knows what he wants to do,” Lance said. “He was getting to the point where he was not in control. Other folks were trying to remake him and remold him and you don’t remake him and you don’t remold him.”

To the degree that Carter was overwhelmed, his confusion was not helped by the fact that his inner circle of advisers had split into two warring factions over how he should respond.

 

***

 

The internal battle among Carter’s advisers resulted in the flurry of activity that followed. Carter fled to Camp David rather than give a traditional speech on energy. There he held a 10-day “summit” where he solicited advice from a wide variety of politicians, spiritual leaders, and everyday people. When he returned, he delivered what is widely known as the “malaise” speech, even though he never uttered that word.

But the speech at first was extremely well received. Roger Mudd of CBS News came on the air moments afterward to anchor the network’s analysis of the address, describing it as “really an extraordinary speech, a very strong one, very upbeat.” The American public loved Carter’s speech. The White House switchboard was flooded with enthusiastic, encouraging phone calls. Letters of support poured in. White House press secretary Jody Powell told reporters on Air Force One, as Carter flew to Kansas City the morning after, that 84 percent of the calls and telegrams to the White House were favorable. Carter’s approval rating jumped 11 points in a few days. “We’ve taken down the for-sale sign!” John White, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, exclaimed.

Some noticed an attempt by Carter to recapture the status of a Washington outsider taking on the establishment, a theme that had helped him win the presidency in 1976. He referred to D.C. as an “island” cut off from the concerns of everyday Americans. But, Steven Roberts wrote in the Times, Carter had “become an islander himself.”

Nonetheless, Mondale said, “There was a feeling we’d done it, for a few days. I think the press felt something was happening. The people did, I know that based on my travels. There was a sense of almost joy in the country . . . joy, expectation, we’re on our way again.”

But the president halted his own momentum. Two days after the speech, Carter, seeking to project strength and boldness, asked for the resignations of the head of every single one of his major cabinet departments: Treasury, Health, Education and Welfare, Transportation, Energy, and his attorney general, Griffin Bell.

After spurning [chief of staff Hamilton] Jordan’s advice about the speech, Carter was now following the counsel of his top adviser. The day after the “malaise” speech, Jordan wrote Carter another long memo about how the president should transition from “manager of the government to the leader of the people.” Jordan identified five different “negative perceptions” about Carter, and created a chart explaining how he should try to reverse each of them.

“Carter is not tough” was one negative perception. Under “Actions Required to Change Perceptions,” Jordan typed: “Cabinet firings.” In the next column, labeled “Desired Perception,” Jordan entered: “Carter is getting tough and is getting a grip on his government.”

“Six weeks from now, the skeptics in the media and the political community of this country will measure the degree of change and ‘toughness’ by your actions against the Cabinet,” Jordan wrote in his memo. “The Cabinet changes are the ‘litmus test’ for most of the persons who will be interpreting your actions to the American people.”

In Jordan’s defense, he had originally conceived of much of this plan before Carter’s big speech, while the president was in Japan and Korea, and at a time when Jordan was advising Carter to give a more straightforward energy speech and then to consolidate power in the White House. Jordan had not wanted to link the firings to Carter’s response to the energy crisis. “A White House shakeup should not be seen as the response of the Administration to our energy problems,” he had written in his July 3 memo. “We don’t need to hype any of these things up—the American people need to see action and change, not rhetoric.”

Nevertheless, Jordan did still advise the president to fire his cabinet officers the day after the speech, knowing full well the political environment that Carter had created. Perhaps his instincts for the dangers of such a move were dulled by the initial positive reaction to the speech.

After the firings were announced, Carter went to the White House press room to brief the press on the changes. “Every single change has been a positive change,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind that I and my administration will now be able to better serve this country.”

But the press and the nation didn’t interpret it that way. The changes backfired horribly, and came off as chaotic and weak. “The firings were meant to be part of the new picture, but were actually an opportunity seized upon by his aides to get him to do what they had long urged him to do. . . . The manner in which they were executed . . . gave off that he had capitulated to his own aides—young men without much national stature—[and] made him appear to many people not strong but weak,” Elizabeth Drew wrote in The New Yorker a month later.

Rather quickly, the goodwill Carter had created with his dynamic and risky speech came crashing down. “Suddenly, bang, we were right back down in the ditch again,” Mondale said. Wrote Drew, “There was a strong feeling on Capitol Hill in July that the Carter Administration had collapsed.”

Kennedy had watched the speech carefully. He would years later say that Carter had failed to lead and sound a tone of optimism. “It was in the aftershocks of this speech that I began thinking seriously about running for the presidency in 1980,” he wrote in his memoir.

During August, Kennedy talked it over with his wife and children. Close friends, family, and advisers had been meeting since February to discuss whether he should run. By Labor Day, he had decided. He told trusted aide Paul Kirk at a Labor Day barbecue, in words that revealed all the forces at work inside him, “If the thing doesn’t work out, I think I’ll just be able to live with myself better for having taken up the cause that’s drifting away.”

Kennedy may have been thinking about the possibility of a loss, but he was in the distinct minority on that count.

[Kennedy announced his candidacy in November 1979, a few days after Iranian radicals seized control of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took its occupants hostage. The hostage crisis, which would hurt President Carter politically as it dragged on, at first helped Carter fend off Kennedy’s challenge by rallying the nation to his side. Kennedy fought Carter all the way to the Democratic convention in New York, where he lost a floor fight to free delegates from their commitments to support the winners of their states’ primaries. Carter secured the nomination but was humiliated by Kennedy’s tepid handshake on the convention’s final night, and he went on to lose the election to Ronald Reagan in a landslide.]

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