Revised at 4:50 p.m. Monday:
Early Wednesday morning, Jimmy Carter issued his formal reaction to the death of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy.
To speak anything but good about the dead would have been out of character.
“Sen. Kennedy was a passionate voice for the citizens of Massachusetts and an unwavering advocate for the millions of less fortunate in our country,” Carter said.
But it’s worth remembering that, for several years, Ted Kennedy was singled out by many Southern Democrats as the villain who robbed Georgia’s first president of a second term in the White House.
Kennedy’s 1980 primary challenge to Carter was, in a very real way, the making of both men. Weakened by the intraparty feud, Carter was defeated by a Hollywood actor turned California governor — and thereafter became the most active ex-president in U.S. history, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
For Kennedy, whose candidacy had been assumed since the murder of his two older brothers, losing to a peanut farmer who had materialized out of the nation’s post-Watergate funk marked the end of his presidential ambitions, and the real beginning of his Senate career.
The Kennedy family’s relationship with African-American leaders in Georgia dates back to the Civil Rights movement. U.S. Rep. John Lewis was waiting in Bobby Kennedy’s hotel room when the second Kennedy brother was assassinated.
“I loved him like a brother,” the Atlanta congressman said of Ted Kennedy on Wednesday.
Kennedy’s relationship with white conservative Democrats was more tenuous. And his attempt to shove Carter out of the White House still has many stumped.
Kennedy himself proved unable to articulate his ambition, giving a famously rambling answer when asked by a CBS newsman, “Why do you want to be president?”
Health care reform, of all things, was Kennedy’s main complaint. “The thing we focused on early on in the first few days was hospital cost containment, whereby we were going to try to stop increasing health costs. [Carter] and Kennedy just had different ideas about how to do that,” said Bert Lance, 78, an original member of the Carter circle.
Kennedy announced his candidacy within days of the assault by Iranian revolutionaries on the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Carter responded by telling a group of congressmen, “I’ll whip his ass.”
“The problem they had with Kennedy was not in the primary but the convention. Jimmy felt certain he could defeat Kennedy, and he did,” Lance said.
Kennedy’s speech in New York’s Madison Square Garden was the high point of the convention, Georgia Democrats who were there now admit. The address was, even in defeat, a repudiation of the centrist direction that Carter and others were pushing the Democratic party.
Count Ed Kilgore, a veteran Democratic strategist, among those who think Carter’s 1980 re-election was doomed with or without Kennedy’s interference. “I think the idea that Teddy’s challenge is what cost Jimmy the presidency is a real questionable premise,” said Kilgore, who at the time worked for Gov. George Busbee. “Given everything that was going on and how that presidential election developed, I think Jimmy was going to lose anyway. Objective reality was his enemy.”
There was even talk in the Carter camp that Kennedy was a useful foil, Kilgore remembered. “It allowed for Jimmy to show that he hadn’t lost his electoral chops, and could beat this legendary figure.”
Some unforgiving Carterites — and they still exist — remain unconvinced. They were able to renew their resentment when it was revealed several years later that, in December 1979, shortly after announcing his candidacy, Kennedy had embarked on his own foreign policy adventure.
In part to embarrass the man in the White House, Kennedy dispatched former Sen. James Abourezk of South Dakota on a secret trip to Iran, seeking to gain the release of the 52 American hostages. (The effort failed. The hostage crisis would be resolved only in the last hours of the Carter presidency.)
Although there may be division on the impact of Kennedy on Carter’s fortunes, no one — in the hours after his death — expressed doubt that Kennedy was a changed man after his 1980 defeat.
A recent biography of Kennedy by Adam Clymer posits that only after the drubbing from Carter did the Massachusetts senator resolve to make his mark in the U.S. Senate.
Kennedy did make a brief 39-day foray into the 1988 presidential campaign, but it amounted to nothing. His clash with Carter had defined him.
“Ted sought the White House, but destiny kept him in the Senate, where I believe his cumulative impact was substantially more than he would have likely achieved as president,” said former U.S. senator Sam Nunn, who served with Kennedy more than two decades.
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