KENNEDY VS. CARTER: THE 1980 BATTLE FOR THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY'S SOUL
By Timothy Stanley
University Press of Kansas, $34.95
On July 17, 1980, I was sitting with a group of top-flight journalists when out of the blue one of them asked, "What happened in Washington exactly one year ago today?" After a few minutes of increasingly embarrassed silence, the questioner said, "Jimmy Carter fired his entire Cabinet." In reality, citing a crisis of confidence, President Carter asked his Cabinet to resign, and five of its members did.
If that startling event could be forgotten by reporters who are supposed to remember such things, think how much the reading public may have forgotten about what happened in American political life back in that distant pre-Internet era. As for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the man who subsequently challenged his own party's incumbent president, likely what most people remember today is that Kennedy vacillated before taking the plunge, and then, once in, ran a lackluster campaign until his disastrous interview with CBS reporter Roger Mudd sent it into a downward spiral.
Except that's not what happened.
Timothy Stanley, Leverhulme research fellow at the University of London's Royal Holloway College, has written a book that could have special appeal right now. He describes a period in our history when many Americans were dissatisfied with their national leaders, fed up with the two major political parties and displayed a growing interest in a third party.
Mr. Stanley takes issue with the view that Kennedy faltered and then failed because the people didn't like either him or his politics. Instead, he advances the theory that they liked his traditional New Deal liberal policies just fine and were willing to overlook his character flaws, even to the extent of giving him a pass on Chappaquiddick.
Mr. Stanley lays out his proof in fairly compelling fashion (thanks in part to 68 pages of notes) that had it not been for certain contingencies beyond his control, like the Iranian hostage crisis to name a big one, Kennedy would have defeated not only Mr. Carter but also Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Stanley has done his homework. He has talked with most of the right people, logged long hours in various archives and assiduously documented his supporting evidence. Most impressive, however, is the careful use he makes of polling data, in particular exit poll data, and he has included voting results and margins broken down into racial, ethnic and gender groupings for what seems like every important primary in the entire campaign.
Does all that detail make for tedious reading? In spots, yes, but not to the extent you might think, for Mr. Stanley has a clear and compelling narrative style that catches his readers in the "suspense" of the race, even though we all know what happened.
Some may remember that Kennedy and Mr. Carter almost had a televised debate prior to the convention. Kennedy asked for the debate, thinking his primary wins in the big states of New York, Pennsylvania and California and his almost across-the-board support from black and ethnic voters proved he was, in Mr. Stanley's words, "the soul of the Democratic Party."
Mr. Carter's staff was enthusiastic, but when Vice President Walter F. Mondale heard of the plan, he quickly put the kibosh on it - a strategic error, the author says.
Some also may remember that Kennedy had asked for an open convention, in which the delegates would not be bound to vote for the winners of their state's primary. He didn't get his wish, but it caused a bounce that the author feels was unwarranted: "A Washington Post survey found that 41 percent of delegates supported its cause and warned that a 'mutiny' was once again in the air. This was a classic example of the kind of media hyperbole that hyped up the convention's significance."
As the convention approached during the summer, things seemed to be improving for Kennedy. The opposite was true for the president, especially after news broke that problem child Brother Billy had accepted money from the government of Libya to help soften U.S. policy toward Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Mr. Stanley writes, "When [Kennedy] shared a podium with the president in mid-June to speak in favor of the ERA, the difference between the two was immediately apparent. A haggard president was greeted politely by the mix of union activists and feminists. A tanned, jovial Kennedy was warmly cheered."
Nonetheless, Mr. Carter survived the open-convention bid, held his delegates and won the nomination.
Enter Ronald Reagan. The title of the book's final chapter, "Giving It to the Gipper," suggests that Mr. Carter failed to make his case and lost a race he could have won, but that is not the author's point. Mr. Stanley's point is colorfully summarized in a quote he uses from Democratic pollster Peter Hart: "'It was like a leaking bag of water. A leaking bag doesn't drip; it explodes all at once. That's what happened in 1980. The disasters of the previous four years just became enough for the voters."
As for the senator from Massachusetts, Mr. Stanley says, "This book does not ask historians to believe that Kennedy could, or should, have won, but rather to finally acknowledge that he had a chance. The rejection of Carter in 1980 was caused not by a conservative revolution but by a far more complicated set of factors that could just as easily have put a liberal in the White House."
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.
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