The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carter and Kennedy’s bitter battle for the presidential nomination in 1980

David Shribman, former Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe and executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Nearly four decades ago, Washington and the political world were rocked by the audacious challenge that the star-crossed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy mounted against the incumbent president of his own party, the luckless Jimmy Carter. Law and lobby firms were ripped apart, family loyalties were torn asunder, cries of betrayal echoed across the capital, calls to arms went out across the land.

It was 1980. Gas lines were growing, American diplomats were being held hostage in Iran, Ronald Reagan was gathering strength like a tropical storm. The president was weak, his Democratic challenger could barely articulate the rationale for his campaign, the country was in a funk. What a time. What a mess. What a fight.

Jon Ward captures the sound and the fury of this struggle in “Camelot’s End,’’ a fast-paced, even-handed look at Kennedy’s doomed challenge to a doomed president at a time of doom and gloom.

His is the story of two men possessed of a sense of destiny who both went into the family business (tilling the soil for one, trolling for votes for the other). Both ultimately failed in their middle years (a disastrous presidency, a calamitous presidential campaign), but both redeemed themselves in their final acts (as a great former president and as a great Capitol lawmaker).

For all their similarities, the two had fundamental differences. Carter grew up poor, without running water until he was 9, while Kennedy grew up cosseted, with hot and cold water and servants to draw his baths. Carter was an introvert, Kennedy an extrovert. Carter was rural and a bit rusticated, Kennedy urban and clumsily urbane. They were as different as the U.S. Naval Academy and Harvard, their respective alma maters. Suffice it to say that rural electrification, so critical to the Carters, was not a preoccupation of the Kennedys.

Ward’s achievement is in showing — better than any of his predecessors — how the two circled each other warily before their public confrontation during the presidential campaign. For a time Kennedy probably gave nary a thought to the governor of Georgia — he was more concerned with Georgia Sens. Harman Talmadge and Sam Nunn — but Carter studied Kennedy with care. And when by chance both men were asked to speak at a luncheon at the University of Georgia in 1974, Ward speculates that Kennedy regarded Carter as “some no-name backwoods peanut farmer who was limited by the Georgia constitution to one term and would be back in overalls in less than a year.’’

The two never got on. During the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination fight — Kennedy was not a candidate — the high-flying Carter said he was “glad I don’t have to depend on Kennedy or Humphrey or people like that to put me in office,’’ adding of the Massachusetts Democrat, “I don’t have to kiss his ass.’’ When Carter eventually clinched the party’s most coveted prize, Kennedy offered to put his name in nomination at the convention. Carter rejected the offer. And when Carter was in the White House, Kennedy pressed him on health care, thinking the president was reluctant to move on the issue the senator held dearest.

Soon speculation grew that Kennedy would challenge Carter, and indeed, as Ward argues, “as the Carter presidency entered a tailspin at its halfway mark, the door appeared to be opening for Kennedy to walk through and claim the mantle of his party’s leadership.’’

With all the crises swirling around the White House, and with the general sense that the president was a little peculiar — a notion buttressed by a mysterious 10-day retreat at Camp David — Carter was especially vulnerable.

But not so fast. The president may have been vulnerable, but Kennedy was rusty, and he found that his indoor style, shaped by his years in the Senate, was not suited to the outdoor style of presidential campaigning, particularly in the early states. Moreover, Kennedy never broke free of the taint left by the death of a former Robert Kennedy campaign worker, Mary Jo Kopechne, at Chappaquiddick, nor his shockingly inarticulate response to a television newsman’s request that he explain exactly why he was seeking the presidency.

Kennedy lost Iowa and New Hampshire but was buoyed by a victory in New York, where, Ward argues, he finally “found his voice and his message.’’ No matter. Even with late Kennedy victories in California and New Jersey, Carter racked up enough delegates to secure the nomination.

The fight moved from ballots to stagecraft: Would Kennedy take Carter’s hand and hold it aloft in one of the set-piece traditions of American politics, a gesture the Carter camp believed would win them the momentum that would carry the day against Reagan in the general election? He wouldn’t, and it didn’t.

The book suffers from one of the irresistible sins of modern publishing, particularly in books about sports and politics: title and subtitle inflation. Notre Dame’s 1913 victory against Army probably was not “the game that changed college football,’’ as a book about that match-up would have us believe. And the New York Jets probably were not, as another title promised, “the Super Bowl team that changed football.” So, too, the 1980 nomination battle probably was not, as the Ward subtitle blares, “the fight that broke the Democratic Party.’’

There is no guarantee — indeed there is little likelihood — that Carter would have defeated Reagan if Kennedy had resisted his challenge against the 39th president. Carter’s vice president, Walter F. Mondale, was defeated in a landslide four years later for reasons that had nothing to do with Kennedy’s unsuccessful campaign. The Mondale defeat exposed how broken was the party — captive of special interests, of New Deal nostrums discredited a generation earlier, of regional and generational tension. Iran, interest rates and inflation (and Reagan’s appeal) defeated Carter. They would have done so had Kennedy never been born.

Still, this is a breezy, pleasant read, a nostalgic window on a time long ago for those of us who lived (and covered) it, an instructive volume for those too young to have witnessed one of the more fascinating passages in American political life. It also provides an enduring lesson. Even if you are right — as Carter said of Kennedy, “I’ll whip his ass” — you’re never rewarded for saying so.

Camelot's End

By Jon Ward

Twelve. 390 pp. $22