A Look at “Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs Carter and the Fight that Broke the Democratic Party” by Jon Ward

Camelot's End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight that Broke the Democratic PartyCamelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight that Broke the Democratic Party by Jon Ward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Jimmy Carter/Teddy Kennedy race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980 was an epic fight and Jon Ward brings us back to it with this terrific book. The Carter/Kennedy fight had both a short term and long term impact on the Democratic Party, with the contest weakening incumbent President Carter, and most certainly helping GOP nominee Ronald Reagan to victory that year. The contest, without question, impacted Democratic politics in ways still felt today.

The author brings us mini-biographies of each man to start the book, with looks that are not always flattering to either. We see Carter’s development as a politician in the deep south, and despite his reputation as a new southern Democrat we see that he was willing to at least blur his positions on race in order to advance politically. He is contrasted with Kennedy in terms of his poorer upbringing, and how hard he had to fight to get ahead. That obviously was not the case with Ted Kennedy, and the author does not shy away from making that contrast with Carter an unflattering one for Kennedy.

Carter’s race to the Presidency is covered, with the Georgia operatives he brought with him to Washington not exactly fitting in with the political class. The run-up to the Carter/Kennedy confrontation is looked at, with the political separation that led to Kennedy entering the race given a good look. Carter’s political operation was hamstrung in several important ways, many of which are covered in some recently read books. (“The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency” by Chris Whipple and “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century” by John Farrell.) Carter’s political failings, and his inability to get along with Democratic grandees like Ted Kennedy and Tip O’Neill, directly led to the Kennedy challenge. Knowing that Kennedy (and many other Dems) were not happy with the direction of the Carter Administration the President dug in and refused to make the political accommodations that might have prevented the Kennedy challenge. Carter’s rebuffing of Kennedy on health care, while not the only factor bringing Kennedy into the race, most certainly played an outsized role. Carter’s failures, in a political sense, are covered extensively in the Farrell book where we find that Ted Kennedy is not the only major Democratic officeholder to have problems with the Carter political operation. Whipple shows us Carter adopting the “spokes of the wheel” staff system, with no Chief of Staff. Everyone, including Carter, now sees that as a problem, and it had to be a factor in the sub-par performance of the Carter political operation, and a factor in the breakdown with Kennedy. My own view is that there was also some “grievance” in Carter about Kennedy, reflective of some jealousy over Kennedy’s standing in the Democratic Party, and in the nation. This grievance, in my view, led to some desire in Carter to show Teddy exactly who the boss was. In 1979 Kennedy, in national polling, was seen as an easy victor over Carter. Carter did his part to fuel the rivalry by answering a question about Kennedy’s possible entrance into the race:

“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.”

Ward, Jon. Camelot’s End . Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Author Jon Ward brings us the actual primary fight in a measured way, not inundating us with detail but covering the campaign high and low points. In this area the author does not spare Kennedy, who he paints as over-confident, with a political operation covered in rust. Kennedy’s indecision, his disastrous interview with Roger Mudd, and his failure to come up with a cogent message that resonated with primary voters, are covered. (The End of Camelot.) Kennedy had some political misfortune, as the Iran hostage crisis initially created some patriotic support for President Carter, and allowed Carter to avoid the campaign trail and debates. As Kennedy took early defeat after defeat, many of them by wide margins, many urged him to get out of the race. Kennedy’s refusal to do so, and his decision to take the fight all the way to the convention, have been widely discussed, and in some quarters heavily criticized. It is true that Kennedy performed substantially better on the campaign trail once the race was effectively over, deciding to just let it rip. He had a couple of big wins over Carter, including in the New York primary, but it simply was too little, too late. Going into the Convention Carter’s delegate lead was insurmountable.

The book gives us a good look at that Convention, and the very bad blood that existed between the Carter and Kennedy camps. This is another aspect of the Kennedy operation that has come in for heavy criticism. Kennedy’s attempt to “open” the Convention by releasing delegates from their candidate commitments accrued through the caucuses and primaries is covered, as well as the Kennedy operation platform fights and general disruption of the proceedings. (Harold Ickes gets an important cameo in this section) Of course we get the great Kennedy speech at the Convention (“the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die”) as well as the refusal of Kennedy to give Carter a full embrace on the stage at the end of the Convention. This episode is now legend, and Jon Ward gives us much detail on it, including the fact that Kennedy did indeed shake Carter’s hand. Despite the handshake there was no raising of the clasped hands indicating unity between the camps, and Kennedy studiously avoided Carter on that stage. With Kennedy’s speech having worked the party faithful up in a way that Carter could not the Kennedy support was vital to Carter. Ward shows us Carter essentially being humiliated on that stage as the opening of the general election campaign he was destined to lose to Ronald Reagan. Kennedy deserves some criticism for that performance, but the hostility, by that point, was simply baked into the cake.

A very good and interesting book by Ward. Ted Kennedy only ran for President once, and this book gives you a good and fair look at that race, and how it impacted the Democratic Party, and one term Democratic President Jimmy Carter, and helped to usher in eight years of Ronald Reagan.

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