There's a bitter edge in Hamilton Jordan's voice when Jimmy Carter's former chief of staff predicts that Sen. Edward Kennedy will not be elected president in 1984.
When you read "Crisis," Jordan's absorbing account of the last year of the Carter presidency, you soon understand why. In this chronicle of Carter's downfall, Kennedy is a major offstage nuisance, along with Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.
Kennedy's 1980 challenge to a sitting president of his own party sprang from a Democratic silly season. Men of normally astute judgment forgot basic lessons, to say nothing of loyalty. They so forgot the fickleness of polls that Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan could say at one point that Jimmy Carter "governs at the sufferance of Senator Kennedy."
In politics, the dream world is often more alluring than the real one. A busy president, spending prestige on the hard tasks of governing, always generates more negative feeling than a popular outsider mouthing high- flown but irrelevant slogans of party ideologues.
Jordan is still irritated about Kennedy's revolt in 1980 -- not so much the revolt itself as Kennedy's persistence long after it was clear that Carter would be renominated. That persistence, he says, overexposed Carter politically and depleted energies and funds that might have been saved for the reelection battle.
After the convention, to make things worse, Kennedy's money men, according to Jordan, demanded help with the senator's political debts as the price of his support for Carter. Jordan himself took out a $1,000 bank loan for a Kennedy testimonial affair.
American politics necessarily operates on the rule of forgive and forget. But the memories of revolts against a president of one's own party die harder than most -- especially when vanity and nostalgia rather than an overriding national issue beget them.
Ronald Reagan, whose challenge to Gerald Ford helped put Carter in the White House in 1976, at least had a theme, however simple. Reagan could also argue, though the argument was empty, that Ford was an "accidental" president whose White House presence the voters had never formally ratified.
Ted Kennedy, in 1980, had no such excuses. His gratuitous challenge was as themeless as bread pudding. When Roger Mudd asked him, in the famous interview, how his leadership would differ from Carter's, Kennedy replied: "Well, it's a -- on -- on what -- on -- you know, you have to come to grips with the -- the different issues that we're--we're facing . . ." etc. By convention time, Kennedy's rationale boiled down to a difference over wage and price controls: a thin fig leaf for so costly a political ego trip.
Kennedy, now coasting to easy reelection in Massachusetts and looking to 1984, has been testing some television ads designed by his new "media adviser." The ads portray Kennedy as a kindly, compassionate, caring sort of fellow -- "no plaster saint," as one admirer redundantly observes -- but a generous, feeling man.
Few of those who know Kennedy doubt his personal kindliness. It is one of the few noncontroversial things about him. What is bound to worry serious voters more, as the 1984 campaign approaches, is the reliability of his political judgment under pressure. Beyond the usual pressures, in his case, lie the pressures of the wildly inflated "Camelot" legend. Kennedy probably finds the legend as oppressive as anyone else, but it helped push him into the revolt against Carter.
Jordan and other Carter loyalists can hardly be blamed if there is a vindictive edge in their memories of that damaging episode. But the point goes beyond mere personalities and old scores. Both Ford's and Carter's presidencies were undermined in large part by these casual insurgencies, Reagan's and Kennedy's. As the parties continue to falter, election-year fifth-column attacks from within now seem acceptable form.
The consequences for the stability of the presidency itself are serious. Reagan made Carter possible; Kennedy made Reagan possible.
Maybe some Carter Democrats, prompted by Jordan's reminiscences, will hold against Kennedy the grudge that Ford Republicans declined in 1980 to hold against Reagan. But the odds are against it. It would be downright awkward to recall that Ted Kennedy, by helping unseat his own party's president last time, helped bring on the "Reaganomics" he will be attacking night and day.