And then, along came Teddy. The Spoiler. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy had the audacity -- in a shouting, stomping, pounding battle cry for national health insurance -- to electrify this nigh catatonic crowd.
Saturday night -- as the talk all over town was of Ted Kennedy -- the White House crowd had a serious case of what Alfred Kahn, the president's inflation adviser, would call 'banana.' (He has jokingly taken to substituting 'banana' for the dread word 'depression' these days.)
At one exclusive private party of about 50 top administration officials, pols and cabinet members, some who had missed the affernoon fireworks actually stood around taking notes from those who had heard Kennedy.
In contrast to Kennedy, Carter's Friday night tepid opening speech was a better cure for insomnia than Sominex. The applause was lukewarm, which pormpted White House adviser Bob Strauss to grumble, "This is the orneriest audience. It was a fine speech."
Nor were they particularly dazzled by a $65,000 movie extolling Carter's accomplishments (the Camp David accord was a high point). The film was a masterpiece of visual political cliches from amber waves of grain to the Amerian flag. "I haven't seen a better sunset since the old Jerry Ford films," cracked one critic.
This kind of response was disheartening; for this was to have been the predident's party.
It was not to have been Kennedy's party, his year, his anything. But beefy, red-faced Kennedy, the only claim to charisma currently floating in the Democratic party, made it his. Over $1,000, mostly delegates, roared their approval, leaping out of seats, wearing the blue-and-white Kennedy buttons that had mysteriously appeared Thursday night and had been quickly snapped up. Kennedy -- who has consistently said he would not run in 1980 -- was putting Carter on notice, nonetheless.
Issue and Sentiment
The rallying point for dissidents at this midterm convention was Carter's "very tight" budget that would drastically slash programs for the poor, the elderly, the hard-core unemployed. "All we can hope to do here," sighed Eileen Mershart, a delegate from Wisconsin, "is to keep Carter from becoming more conservative than Ronald Reagan.
Kennedy played to that sentiment, handing out copies of his speech in advance. There could hardly be a more "divisive" issue "for America and for our party" than such a drastic approach to inflation, Kennedy said. The fight against inflation has to be "fair!" he roared.
The crowd leaped to its feet when he said, "We've got national insurance for the rich, who deduct the cost of major illness on their income tax returns." In a burst of emotion, he deviated from his text as he shouted about his own family's tragedies. "My father was crippled by a stroke and required constant care for years. We could afford it. That would have bankrupted any average delegate here. I had a son touched by cancer.Extraordinary bills! That would obliterate and wipe out the average family." He drifted into the lilting Irish cadence, as if he had just stepped off the boat, when he shouted, "Seven months I was in the hospital... "
"I want every delegate to this convention to understand," he said pointedly, "that as long as I have a vote in the United States Senate, it will be for that party platform plan that will provide decent health care... for all Americans as a matter of right and not of privilege."
When he finished, HEW Secretary Joe Califano and Stuart Eizenstat, assistant to the president for domestic affairs and policy, looked as if they were about to wrestle an 800-pound gorilla.
National health insurance was too costly to implement at this time of inflation, they said. Kennedy leaped to his feet, strode to the charts on the stage to point to statistics he said would prove otherwise. Then he strode to the corner of the stage and without a mike bellowed in a voice that could be heard in the farthest seat, "When Canada implemented the National Health Plan in 1968, the doctors said they would go on strike. And they did." He paused for dramatic emphasis. "And the deathe rate went down ."
As the crowd went wild again, Kennedy took the chart, and instead of putting it back on the easel, gave it a backward flip, grinned and then in a hands-up victory gesture, moved off center stage, with the crowd yelling for more.
Much later on, in the Rivermont Hotel bar which had become the gathering spot for press and administration officials, one top White House aide said glumly, "Well, you press guys who said this convention was rigged got your story. You got to see Kennedy demagogue on national health insurance. He doesn't ahve to be responsible; the president does ." Then the talk moved on to such pressing matters as to whether a troop movement could be organized to visit Elvis Presley's grave. It was, after all, only 3 a.m. and about 20 trooped out. Before he left, one top black elected official only added to White House gloom by saying, "If Kennedy would run, I'd vote for him tomorrow. And you know I'm a Carter man...."
The Executive Shift
There was a time when Carter was able to shout out his own campagn promises -- to slash government agencies and to solve America's problems -- and not have to worry about implementing them. There was a time, four years ago, at the last mini-convention, when Carter could sit on the edge of a coffee table in a Holiday Inn and tell a handful of New Hampshire delegates, "I'll be in New Hampshire often next year....I'm going to announce for president next Thursday." He was only part of the crowd -- Senators Lloyd Bentsen, Scoop Jackson, Representative Morris K. Udall, and George Wallace were all in there pitching as well.
Today, Carter is the symbol as well as the man, a figure awash in a swirling plalanx of Secret Service men and aides and members of the press. One can learn little things about Carter covering him in a mob scene like this. For example, he has an incipient bald spot on the top of his head. You can glean this from your position on a balcony looking down as he shakes hands with thousands of visitors at Cook Convention Center.
And, high atop the Rivermont Holiday Inn, at a party for Detroit's Mayor Coleman Young, who was giving a pitch to hold the 1980 convention in Detroit, you got an awesome view of presidential power.
Down below, far off into the distance, blue lights on top of police cars flashed and twirled. All traffic came to a halt behind police car barricades. Not an automobile light could be spotted in the darkness of a four-lane highway. And then they came. Police cars and motorcycles, limos; a caravan walled off from the rest of the world bringing the president to town.
Security was heavier than many could remember, To get up the elevator to rooms, at all hours, day or night, you had to show a room key. No guests allowed. One delegate from Detroit said with a wink, "That must have upset lot of people..."
A large number of German shepherds were constantly around, standing silently but menacingly beside their handlers. They were the champion "bomb sniffers" who could detect any odor.
The desperation for news at one point reached such a low that one reporter had to check our whether Ham Jordan really had punched a guy in the bar. Jordan looked mad enough to punch the reporter as he vehemently said no. He kept a low profile during the convention and steered clear of the press-patrolled bars.
Unlike the last mini-convention, this was the place not to be if you were considering 1980. With the exception of Ted Kennedy, "our turndown list reads like a who's Who of American politics," said Elaine Kamarck, a Democratic National Committee staff member who had the task of filling the 24 issues panels that ran all day Saturday.
Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown, instead of coming himself, sent three top aides to quietly assess the situation and poll the delegates.
Administration heavies -- from Bob Strauss to Zbigniew Brzezinski to Joe Califano -- wandered around virtually unrecognized and unmolested.
There were some 200 very special people, Honored Guests, their badges read, who got a chance for colse-up looks and conversations at breakfast, luncheons and receptions with Carter and Vice President Walter F. Mondale. They were distinguished by a general aura of affluence and a special tag on the back of their badges. Asked what the tag said, one of them, roaring with laughter, said, "Feed the fat cat."
They were bankrolling much of the $650,000 it cost to put on the mini-convention.
For at least $1,250 apiece (many contributed much more) they were lavishly praised by Carter for their generosity and support of the Democratic party.
And they, in turn, represented the conservative wing of this fragmented Democreatic party. Their cheers and standinng ovations were for Carter, not Kennedy. They moved into breakfast with Carter in corporate uniform -- three-piece striped dark blue suits and black wing-tipped shoes, the wives in fur coats and dresses.
They see a shift to conservatism as nothing but positive. Ron Tery, a Memphis banker, said cutting social programs is a must. Kennedy's talk of cutting corporate tax loopholes and national health insurance was, he said, "populist rubbish."
The vice president of Gruman Aerospace Corp., Gorden Hochenrider, glad-handed assorted cabinet officers and was, in turn, glad-handed by Ned McWhorter, speaker of the house of Tennessee. He was merely a guest, he said. "If I paid $5,000 for one of these things I'd have the hiccups for three months." As he passed by, another Tennessean said, "He's rich as hell. He's a big beer baron." McWhorter had just voted for rescinding the ERA. "It's totally contrary to the constituency I represent. Why does it bother them?I don't know. It don't bother me. The Democratic party has very definitely gone conservative and I'm very proud of that."
The liberals and the dissenters -- who represented at least a third if not more of the convention -- felt differently. They had sent Carter a message and they hoped he was receiving. For at this White House-controlled convention 40 percent told him they wouldn't support his expected budget cuts. And a CBS poll of 800 -- about half of the delegates -- showed that 42 percent preferred someone else in 1980. The prominent someone else was Kennedy with 34 percent.
But for now most of the delegates said they wre willing to stick with Carter. "I want to give him a chance with this inflation thing," said one delegate, Dean Ferrier. She paused and said, "I don't think he's become a Republican yet."
There are others at the conference who feel that he always has been one.