On June 4th, the day after the last primaries, after eight months of struggle, the expenditure of about $30 million (excluding such off-budget items as seven RH-53 helicopters and one C-130 lost in Carter’s primary spectacular, politely described as the Rescue Mission), the withdrawal from the Moscow Olympics, the shelving of the Salt treaty and such other lesser events as a presidential flight over Mount St. Helens, the victor in the battle for the Democratic nomination was declared by most of the American press to be Jimmy Carter.
June 5th was a beautiful day in Washington, the sun hot and the west wind cool. By four p.m. a small crowd had begun to gather round the northwest gate of the White House. At 4:30 the throng of reporters inside the fence had grown to 200. The northwest gate swung open. To campaign-trail veterans it looked like the last campaign stop: the candidate’s car, the secret-service car, the van with the traveling press, doors opened, cameras out. Ted Kennedy jumped out with his long-time aide Eddie Martin and disappeared inside the White House.
The minutes crept by.
The White House doors opened at last, and Kennedy strode out amid shouts and clamor. “I welcomed the opportunity to tell the president of the United States what I expressed on television the other evening, that is, that I have every intention of continuing this campaign as a candidate to press the issues…. I am a candidate for the nomination.”
There it was. No swift bandaging of party wounds. Kennedy wasn’t quitting.
Within a few days Hamilton Jordan, the president’s chief of staff and now campaign overlord, was leaking his master plan of how Carter had beaten Kennedy to Martin Schram of the Washington Post. Amid the long, self-justifying memos there was one line, ascribed to a senior White House aide, that stopped everyone: “Fuck the Fat, Rich Kid.” Pondering the line a few days later, a Kennedy aide suggested the mood at their campaign headquarters on Twenty-second Street: “Fuck the Cracker.”
The question: is there the slightest chance the Cracker can be fucked?
Part I: “He Lied to Me”
The spine of The Democratic party is labor, not a peanut farm in Georgia. And so far as labor is concerned, the main achievement of the candidate they so enthusiastically endorsed in 1976 has been to bring down upon them, all in the name of inflation fighting, a fierce recession that is throwing their members out of work.
The Democratic party has a convenient receptacle for the very understandable spleen and discontent of many of its constituents, including labor. It is called the platform, a document hallowed in reputation and read by none. Every four years the party goes through the worthy process of compiling this platform, which enshrines the principles and standards to which the leaders of the party are expected to adhere. The 1976 platform was splendid, liberal in content, uplifting in purpose and ignored by Carter.
On a Saturday morning in mid-June, in a cavernous basement room of the new Sheraton Washington Hotel, about thirty Democratic delegates forming part of the platform committee sat in studious boredom listening to the recommendations of some of the country’s most powerful labor leaders. Among them was William Winpisinger, head of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which has nearly a million members.
Winpisinger is on the left end of the labor-leader spectrum. And there’s not been much doubt, in the last couple of years, about his attitude toward Jimmy Carter. We went to see him in the spring of 1979 in the Machinists’ International headquarters in Washington, put a couple of tape recorders on his desk and asked him if Carter could do anything to redeem himself in his eyes. “Yes,” said Winpisinger. “There’s one way he could do it.”
“What is that?” we asked. Pause.
“Die.” Long pause.
“I don’t wish that on him, but that’s the only goddamn way I know that he can.”
Eighteen months later, Winpisinger, one of Kennedy’s most loyal labor supporters, sat testifying before the Democratic Platform Committee. Tiny birds trapped in the basement room swooped about as he sharply reminded his audience, “It would be hypocritical to come before the people with a new platform in 1980 if the party does not have any more intention of keeping it than it did in 1976.”
“Do you think,” we asked him afterward, “there is any hope left this year?”
“It’s dim. It depends in large measure on who will be nominated. My hunch is that if we nominate a decent guy, there will be hope.” Winpisinger paused. “If we nominate Jimmy Carter I’m prepared to say forget it. I don’t think there is any hope.”
“But it looks like Carter is going to be nominated.”
“I haven’t come to that conclusion yet by a damn sight…. I’m not sure Kennedy won’t make it yet,” Winpisinger said stubbornly. “It’s uphill … but hell, the convention’s a while away; the skulduggery hasn’t really begun in earnest.”
“Will you vote in the election?”
“Not if Jimmy Carter is our nominee. Now if we nominate another Democrat who doesn’t have such a shabby record of infidelity, then I’d get in there and pull the lever twice if I could.”
The bottom-line question for many Democrats this fall: “Do you think there is a difference between Carter and Reagan?”
Winpisinger did not hesitate for a second: “I don’t,” he said firmly. “I’d go vote for Carter if I thought there were any difference. I’d swallow all my pride and principles and go do it. But I don’t feel that way. I just don’t think I want to waste my vote. I’m not going to give him support that goes against my heart and my head.”
He stopped, then burst out: “That little son of a bitch stood right there in his goddamn office and lied to me, looked me right in the fucking eye, and I’ll never forgive him for it.”
“What did he lie about?”
“It was all over natural gas deregulation.”
“He told you he was going to stick with regulation?”
Winpisinger’s voice grew louder. “Godamnit … he asked for our goddamn support. I was a little wary; he’d already double-crossed enough people by then. He asked me what my opinion was and I said, ‘Well, Mr. President, I didn’t intend to say, but since you ask, I’ll tell you. We think $1.75 [per thousand cubic feet] gas is a rip-off just the way you do, but if you’re telling us that’s the best deal we could get in the U.S. House of Representatives, we’ll throw in with you. But if you budge one mill above that, forget it. We’re gone.’
“Well, he not only budged one mill, he budged the whole fucking thing up with deregulation.”
“What are you going to recommend your union members do in the election?”
“I’m going to tell them, bottom line, look, every guy who closes the curtain of the booth is accompanied only by his conscience. We have a lot of dedicated old-line Democrats, fellow officers of mine, who are going to vote for Jimmy Carter if he’s nominated, because they are lifelong Democrats and just can’t see or think any other way…. That’s an exercise of their conscience.
“I’ll exercise mine, and it’ll probably be more public than theirs by virtue of my position, but it’s important that I not capitulate to this little … I call him a ********* ****** ***** AND HE IS. That’s not for quote. And I’M NOT GOING TO GIVE HIM A VOTE. He hasn’t done a goddamn thing. He hasn’t done any more than Ronnie Reagan to deserve my vote. That’s a sad goddamn commentary on an incumbent Democrat president. If he ever wants to get with it and do some Democrat programs, I’d throw in with him, but I don’t think he’s capable.”
“Suppose he says he’s going to do it?”
“I wouldn’t believe him.”
Faced with some of Winpisinger’s more florid expressions of political opinion, his fellow labor leaders draw back somewhat or shake their heads indulgently and murmur, “Ah … Wimpy.” But Winpisinger just happens to put into exceptionally vigorous language what a lot of them, at base, think about Carter.
Douglas Fraser of the United Auto Workers (UAW), like Winpisinger, is the head of a fine, progressive union. Like Winpisinger, Fraser has been an early and loyal supporter of Kennedy. But Fraser’s situation is different. The members of the UAW have been directly in the firing line of President Carter’s antiinflation policy, which amounts to an induced recession with consequent widespread, growing unemployment. More than forty percent of Fraser’s auto workers have been laid off. Unemployment in Detroit, Fraser pointed out to the somnolent platform committee, is running at over twenty percent.
His manner is mild compared to Bill Winpisinger’s, and though still committed to Kennedy, at least through the convention, he is more circumspect in discussing the Democratic nomination.
“It’s a long, long process,” he sighed wearily, presumably alluding to his efforts, in testifying, to inject some principle into the Democratic party and its platform.
“Has the contest this year still got any meaning?”
“The very fact that Kennedy is in there is, I think, changing Carter’s attitude about several things. I think he’s more sensitive to unemployed people.”
“If Carter gets the nomination, do you think labor will bite the bullet and vote for him in November?”
“I think they have to go through a process. They’re not there yet.” Fraser had just come from the UAW’s convention in Anaheim, California, and the possible length of that healing process was evidently bothering him. “We had 3,000 delegates right from the shop, and we listened to four hours of debate, four hours of frustration and anger and anxiety. If we’d taken a vote there to endorse Carter, it would have been foolish. We’d have lost. I’m not saying they’d have gone to Reagan, but they probably would have come down on the side of no endorsement. Reagan is picking up support.
“This grass-roots support for Reagan comes from anger. That anger will subside as we approach the election and people say, wait a minute; we don’t want to blow up the world. If the press focuses on Reagan and his record, like they did with the other candidates, then it could change.”
“There seems to be a lot of bitterness. Will the party unify behind Carter if he’s the nominee?”
“I’ve seen this bitterness before. The party won’t be completely unified. We’ll have people sit on their hands, but those people who support Kennedy have got to face the hard reality we all have to face. Jesus, if it were a Baker or a Jerry Ford, Carter would get wiped out. But we all have – if we are going to vote in November – to face that decision.”
Poor Fraser. Back in 1976, the UAW was among the first unions to support Carter. Now here was Fraser in this cavern, lecturing some sixty people – delegates, press and waitresses – on what the Democratic party was meant to be about.
Fraser was still supporting Kennedy, but clearly was prepared for the worst, in the form of Jimmy Carter. And, in such a grim eventuality, he was doggedly bracing himself to help heal the wounds and march toward November in some semblance of party unity.
This healing process, viewed with gloom by Fraser, was being rather exuberantly contemplated by some liberal politicians, foremost among them Morris Udall.
For arcane and unfathomable reasons, Mo Udall holds a special place in the hearts of all liberals. Udall, of course, was the holdout for liberal hope against Carter in 1976. His plucky speech in Madison Square Garden before weeping supporters was – by common consent – one of the high points of that particular coronation. Only much later was it revealed that, long before the speech in New York, Udall had gone to Carter, conceded him to be the winner and merely pleaded for a face-saving interval in which he could sustain his zealous faithful with gusts of oratory and only gradually let them down into the lap of the Cracker.
These days, Udall hardly reminds you of the candidate of ’76. He sits stiffly and moves stiffly about his second-floor congressional office, and there seems to be a spiritual wanness, as if his self-appointed new role, the Healer, was not uplifting him.
After the last round of primaries on June 3rd, it was Udall who took swift steps to make the best of things. Although one of Kennedy’s earliest supporters, Udall was not going to be left out in the cold. “Hell,” remarked one acquaintance, “Mo woke up one morning in 1976 and found everyone gone and busy uniting round Carter. This time he thought he’d get out front.”
What Udall did was call for unity, and lo and behold, the very next day there was a call from none other than his old friend Jimmy Carter, who said, guess what, Mo? You’d be really great as the keynote speaker at the Democratic convention in August in New York.
Mo gave the invitation a second or two of agonized thought before accepting. Now he is tucked away in what he loftily refers to as “a neutral corner,” where he can make peace by stabbing Kennedy in the back and kissing Carter’s ass.
But perhaps this is too rough-hewn a way of putting it. Let Mo tell the tale in his own words, as expressed to us on a pleasant summer evening last month.
“What’s going to happen now?” we asked him.
“We have to cool down the rhetoric a bit and search for areas of agreement rather than disagreement. I thought Kennedy was carried away toward the end of the campaign, saying Carter was a clone of Ronald Reagan. Carter’s people got carried away and made unduly harsh attacks on Senator Kennedy. Given a little time they’ll both come back to the middle and we’ll avoid a lot of platform fights.”
“So you will be the peacemaker in your speech at the convention?”
“That’s right. A little bit of humor, some common sense. Appeal to everybody to close ranks and rally round the banner. The most powerful sense of unity the delegates could have would be the three words President Ronald Reagan.”
“Four years ago everyone bound up the wounds and went in behind Carter, and after four years of Carter you’re doing it again. Won’t some people say enough is enough?”
“Sure, I know you run these risks. I haven’t begun to think how to organize this speech.”
Udall discoursed on friendship, loyalty and certain upright strains in his own character: “Apart from some late primary hostilities, the president and I always got along in 1976. I was a little closer to Scoop Jackson and the people I had known on a personal basis. But Carter was always fair and very generous with me, and there’s no hostility between us. Senator Kennedy stayed in the Udall home in 1959 when he was managing the Rocky Mountains for his brother, and we’ve fought a lot of fights – some of them during the Carter administration – on antitrust and health insurance. I also happen to be pretty close to John Anderson, and Scoop Jackson and I are friends.
“I think,” Udall concluded virtuously, “I’m somebody who, though viewed as coming from the liberal wing of the party, has a broad array of friendships that reach into the different sections of the Democratic party.
“I respect Kennedy’s right to stay in if he wants to. I endorsed him last December, the same month he dropped twenty points in the polls. What I said then stands, but having been picked as keynoter, I move off into a neutral corner and keep my lines open to everybody so maybe I can play a role in bringing peace to the party. I don’t take back my endorsement. I made it so it was not anti-Carter; I intended it as pro-Kennedy.”
After this mysterious statement, Udall gave himself a final slap on the back: “I frankly was a little irritated by some of Kennedy’s friends and supporters. Kennedy was essentially an honest draft – the closest thing to an honest draft since Adlai Stevenson in 1952. These governors and congressmen and senators said to Kennedy, only you can head the ticket and win, or the Republicans will beat us. And he goes out on the battlefield and puts on his armor and picks up his sword and says follow me and looks back and there’s nobody there. They’re all in the woods waiting to see if he can slay a dragon or two by himself. That sort of irritated me. I pride myself on loyalty and friendship, and that was one thing I could do, when everyone was pulling back, to say he was the better choice for president.”
That was back then. Now Mo ponders his big moment in August when – as he at least seems to expect – he will, with humor and common sense, set the minds and consciences of the delegates at ease about the utter reasonableness, in the name of all the usual traditions, of voting for one of Udall’s friends, the president.
Part II: The Last-Ditch Scenario
So what can happen at the Democratic convention when 3,022 delegates, 2,053 alternates, candidates’ wives, observers, party dignitaries and journalists beyond number all gather in Madison Square Garden on August 11th?
The Carter camp hopes it will be a pretty simple proposition. Extant tallies of delegate strength show the president with a clear majority. There may be some ritualistic struggle over the rules or the platform, but Carter will be nominated on the first ballot; the rest of the convention will be devoted to establishing that harmony so necessary for any chance of victory in November.
The Kennedy camp fully recognizes the length of the odds, yet does not concede the nomination to Jimmy Carter. It sees a chance, if only a tiny one, of forcing an open convention by persuading the delegates that whatever label they may have been elected under earlier in the year, events require them to act differently now and to ponder with an open mind whether they truly wish the party and possibly the nation to be confronted by Jimmy Carter for the next four years.
In all probability it comes down to a fight on the convention floor; the likeliest point of division is a party rule known as 11H. Since 1968, the party has struggled to find a way of ensuring that the ultimate actions of the delegates at the convention reflect the outcome of the delegate-selection process (in primaries, caucuses and state conventions). After each convention a commission is appointed to study and propose changes in the rules for the next one. The last commission, dominated by Carter people, made its final report to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 1978. One rule – 11H – drafted by the DNC on the recommendation of the commission became the subject of much strategic contemplation in the Kennedy camp. If adopted by the full convention, it would bind each delegate to vote on the first ballot for the candidate he or she was elected to represent. If the delegate failed to do so, he or she could be replaced by an alternate on the floor of the convention.
Rule 11H will go to the convention floor in a package with many other rules. The Kennedy forces, in a position to enter a minority report on 11H, seem sure that they can force a debate and have the convention vote specifically on the meaning of 11H.
The possible defeat of that rule is viewed as the possible springboard for breaking open the convention, for if the delegates at least endorse the idea that they are not computer cards in human form but independent agents, then who knows what they might do?
Back in 1972, Rick Stearns, now thirty-six, was one of the key campaign strategists for George McGovern and architect of dazzling delegate management at the Miami convention. He was twenty-seven then. He sat out ’76 doing his bar exams, and for the last seven months he has been on leave from his job as a prosecutor in Dedham, Massachusetts, to work for Kennedy. Stearns is chief delegate hunter, and after an extended period of many downs and fewer ups, is fairly hardheaded about prospects.
He smokes a lot of cigarettes these days. So does Carl Wagner, 35, a whiz-kid political organizer and national field director of the Kennedy campaign.
Early one morning, the day before Kennedy once again asserted his candidacy before cheering liberals gathered in Washington in June for an Americans for Democratic Action convention, Stearns sat in the empty auto-dealer showroom that serves as part of Kennedy headquarters.
“Let’s start,” Stearns said, “with some realistic assessment of where the forces are in the convention if nothing is altered between now and when it meets.” He rattled off delegate strengths for Carter and Kennedy and concluded, “If nothing changes between now and the convention, the outcome is pretty clear: Carter wins. So then, if that is the premise, you have to ask yourself, well, here is a game that, if I play by the rules that are proposed, I’m going to lose. If you want to win, the only answer is to go with a different set of rules. The reason you have that option is that the rules that are proposed now for the convention – principally Rule 11H – have never really been adopted as the convention’s operating rules.”
“Well,” we asked, “could you win on 11H?”
“I don’t think we could win on that kind of issue as a Kennedy tactic. Once we draw the line as strictly a Kennedy-Carter contest, partisanship takes over and there’s no real discussion of what issue is involved. If there’s interest in the concept of an open convention, in the retention of a more or less historic model of the way the nominating convention has worked, then I think we might win. I think there are a lot of delegates right now who support Carter and would probably vote for him, but who object to this innovation.
“It really is an interesting argument,” Stearns remarked, showing robust intellectual skin tone. “It pits a Rousseau-like concept of the convention against a Burkean one.” Edmund Burke is popular among Kennedy folk. The day before, Wagner had indicated that the task was “to convince each one of the delegates that he is Edmund Burke.” In Stearns’ midget version of a debate on political theory that lasted a hundred years, Burke’s view of democracy was representative, whereas Rousseau’s view attempted to substitute majority sentiment for deliberation.
“Do we elect people,” Stearns continued, “to use their discretion and their judgment, or do we elect them to carry out instructions? [The latter] means that the delegate becomes something much different. He basically goes as a computer card in the flesh. My feeling is that a lot of delegates take being a delegate to the convention seriously. That’s why people work so hard to become delegates.”
“What happens if you lose on 11H?”
“Unless the country is in utter turmoil at that point and you have open rebellion in the Carter ranks, Carter will be the nominee. If we win on it, the convention is going to be very fluid between then and the presidential nomination. For example, platform debates will take on extraordinary significance, because everyone will be waiting to see whether that vote on the convention rules will mean something in terms of readjustment of people’s views on the presidential nominee. So if the convention would vote to open itself up, you would immediately see other candidates springing up, whether on their own or because people would see a chance to promote Mondale or their favorite guy. Carter of course remains the strongest initial candidate.”
“So the focus at the convention will be on the rules?”
“That’s my prediction of where everything else that happens till then will focus itself. There are a series of progressive questions that you address to the delegates at this point. First, what do you think the convention should be, and what is the role of the delegate in the convention?
“If you still have an open mind and consider those two questions, then you ask two more about Jimmy Carter. Is he electable, and is he a Democrat in any sense of the word, from the delegate’s point of view? If the answer to either of those questions is no, or is in doubt, then you basically ask the same two questions about Kennedy or about anybody else.
“It seems to me the White House bears the burden on the first question, because they’re the ones who basically want to change the nature of the convention, and they obviously bear the burden of persuasion on Carter, his electability and his desirability. We obviously have the burden of persuasion on whether Kennedy is an alternative. Up until the convention, we’ll be concerned with the first question – participating in the debate over what the convention should be. We’ll also be very concerned with trying to persuade people that Kennedy is the alternative, that Kennedy is electable and Carter is not. That may be an impossible argument to win.”
There you have it: the last-ditch strategy, perched somewhere between “most unlikely” and “out of the question.” Much depends on events beyond the control of anyone in the Kennedy, and possibly in the Carter, camp. As Wagner pointed out, “If unemployment is ten percent in August, it will set loose in the party – regardless of rather sterile arguments about rules and the charter of the Democratic party – politics that will produce a very different dynamic than five percent unemployment and eight percent inflation. The unfolding of national political debate between now and August will affect the delegates’ perception of their role at the convention to a very great extent.”
Peter Edelman, Kennedy’s issues director and a veteran of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 drive, sets the options in slightly different terms than those of Stearns or Wagner: “The convention makes its own rules. The fundamental question is not the rules. The fundamental question is whether there is significant sentiment among the delegates to nominate someone other than the front-runner. If there is that sentiment, legal ways can be found to do that. That’s what it comes down to. If there isn’t, then the rules should operate.”
Due to circumstances beyond our control … Carter could try another rescue bid. Blacks could riot in Chicago. Carter could bite Ramsey Clark in the leg. He could do nothing. Invoke the name of Edmund Burke and pray.
Part III: What Went Wrong?
The Quadrennial Primary ritual has become one of the most prolonged and expensive features of American political life. It tilts the nation’s domestic and foreign policy for a year. It dominates national discussion. All to what end? Were issues truly debated, at least on the Democratic side? Was the president’s record properly scrutinized? Were the voters given a chance to assess his intentions for the next four years?
“The die was cast in the first month,” Peter Edelman concluded about Kennedy’s bid. “There was a window at the first. What was seen through that window was the Roger Mudd interview, the style and substance of the first month’s stump speaking. The style was perceived as flat and inarticulate…. At the end of the first month, you had the remark on the shah at the same time the hostages had been taken…. Why was Kennedy flat at the beginning? To this day I don’t know. And it was not simply a matter of some conscious decision having been taken. There was something there in terms of his groping for a style. Maybe even being only human. A little uptight about going out on the campaign trail. And whether he was going to be as good as he thought he ought to be….”
“Kennedy,” said Stearns, “went through the scrutiny a candidate always gets from the press. Some of it was awfully rough, but just as Carter was about to be drawn into the process – not as the president of the United States but as a candidate – then came Iran and Afghanistan. The opportunity to isolate himself in the trappings of incumbency presents itself, and shrewdly enough they take it, and basically they lock Carter away. Carter then remains for most of the campaign period as the president, Kennedy as the candidate, so most of the attention remains focused on Kennedy as a candidate and Carter as an institution.
“The plus for Carter staying out of the process was that he was able to represent the institution and not the campaign. The minus is that you leave everyone with a very dissatisfied feeling when the process formally ends. The public has never seen Carter as a candidate. They have no idea of how he will defend his record, what he proposes to do for the next four years. There has never really been a campaign in that sense of the word. I think that’s the reason 1980 is not like 1976.”
These days, of course, the tendency is to write off the Kennedy campaign as the victim of willful blunders by the candidate’s strategists. As Wagner pointed out, “There is a great deal made of the tactical political judgments made internally in campaigns. Certainly we made mistakes that we wish we hadn’t. But the politics of the national political debate in the first two or three months of this campaign were dominated by two incredibly reactionary forces: Iran, with the patriotic appeal that precipitated the electorate; and inflation, which is probably, in a democratic society, the most reactionary force. I’ve been surprised how little comment has been made on the impact of inflation. In my view it disadvantaged the more moderate Republicans in a very substantial way and activated Reagan’s base within the party. I think the reverse case is now taking place to some extent. On the economy, for example, we have drifted from inflation into a very deep recession…. It is taking hold and producing a politics very different from the politics of inflation.”
Was it a dirty campaign?
Stearns tended to think that the shrewdest, and possibly most effective, piece of skulduggery on the part of the Carter camp was using the networks to have Carter give a press conference at 7:30 on the morning of the Wisconsin primary, which the president won. “But I wouldn’t say it was dirty. I think it will fundamentally prove itself to have been rather stupid. Other than accomplishing the immediate objective of scarring Kennedy, it didn’t really accomplish very much for Carter in the final analysis. You might cast your vote and say, I took care of that Kennedy problem, but you still have no real reason why you took Carter as an alternative. The danger of it is that in the long run, you may hurt yourself rather than help yourself.
“I honestly think,” Stearns concluded rather surprisingly, “that the biggest mistake Carter made was not debating before the June 3rd primaries. Carter had a lot more to gain from a debate, frankly, than Kennedy did, so long as he held his own. You had Kennedy saying he would unilaterally release his delegates if Carter agreed to a debate before June 3rd.”
It’s hard, with the Kennedy people, to get what we might call the personal note. The personal reserve of the candidate seems to seep through headquarters. Still and all:
“Rick, just looking at it from your own personal point of view, have you participated in this campaign with the same sort of zest that you did in say, 1972, in the McGovern campaign?”
Stearns: “Well, to me … I’m older … I can’t stay up as late as I used to … the major difference from 1972 was that the debate, the divisions – that is, the debate within the party – stem fundamentally less from deeply held moral convictions than from intellectual convictions. There is a little less intensity or ferocity in the debate.”
“Has it been fun?”
“The vote in Connecticut was a lot of fun…. It was good, old-fashioned campaigning. It’s always fun to win.”
There is always, of course, the question of Kennedy’s moves after the convention, taking the general assumption that he will not be the nominee. This sort of speculation produces quite amusing verbal gymnastics on the part of Kennedy staffers, since the official line is still emphatically that Kennedy will be the nominee. Conversation can become surreal, like that of a seventeenth-century bishop still stubbornly insisting as a matter of doctrinal principle that the earth is the center of the universe.
Both Stearns and Edelman declared that they will support the nominee of the Democratic convention, whoever he is – which we may assume reflects the senator’s views of party loyalty, whether to himself or Carter. Exactly when a defeated Kennedy would endorse Carter is more moot. His debate would be carried forward over the longer term in Congress.
There’s a lot of bitterness, naturally enough, around Kennedy headquarters. The question is, how much of this bitterness or dislike for the Carter administration will be nourished in the bosom of the voters this fall, assuming the president is the nominee. The possibility of this bitterness in the electorate is what frightens union leaders like Douglas Fraser, who came within an ace of telling us that his members might well have gone for Reagan.
“One thing that stands out,” Edelman brooded, “is that Carter arrived in this town wrapped not only in a populist banner but in … the cloak of very self-conscious morality, self-proclaimed honesty and trustworthiness. And it was very cleverly built. I was thinking the other day about the significance of the fact that he told Bob Scheer in that ’76 Playboy interview that he had had ‘lust in his heart.’ Everybody said aaaah. The point of that was to establish honesty, because this fellow must be honest if he would say something that was that open and personal. Very clever, because it has a half-life, an aura that goes way beyond the original remark. And my view in retrospect is that he knew exactly what he was doing. Then when he comes along and goes to the construction unions the day after he creates a recession and says, ‘I’ll protect your jobs,’ well, that’s Jimmy Carter, we trust him, he doesn’t lie to us. There are just thousands of examples like that. So I think that what’s different here is that there was the self-proclaimed, self-righteous aura of morality, honesty and truth that has been violated as much as or more than any politician ever violates the canons of truth and honesty in his public performance. That’s the main thing. But there’s something as important in the long run, and that’s incompetence.”
Obviously something went wrong in the primaries, since more than half of the Democrats who voted on June 3rd in Ohio, California and New Jersey stumbled out of the polling booths vowing not to vote for Jimmy Carter in the fall. Scarcely an affirmation of ringing confidence.
The reasons are straightforward enough. Americans went into this election year craving some sense of order and stability. This is what pollsters have been reporting and what the politicians have been trying to package. What does it mean? A sense of security about the country’s future, a sense that up top in the captain’s cabin there is someone in control who has some ideas on the long-term conduct of an economy that is going to bump up and down for the next decade or more, and who can define America’s role in a world where it is on the decline.
“By 1979,” Peter Hart, Kennedy’s pollster said, “we got the sense in all our polls that things were pretty terrible and pretty much out of control.” Was this sense assuaged by the primary process? “Probably not. In other words, events probably tended to reinforce people’s perceptions, rather than the dialogue setting people’s minds at ease.”
The voters may not have felt at ease about Kennedy by June, but they certainly did not feel much ease about Carter, either. The president’s “competency” rating, as pollsters like Hart put it, had slumped back down to twenty-five percent, which is where it was last fall when the whole process started.
In the end, the Democratic party has to take a good look at itself at the convention and be much more than a rubber stamp for Carter. “The Democratic party,” Carl Wagner said, “is the majority party not because it has avoided heated, passionate discussion of politics and other issues. The Democratic party is the majority party because it has stood up to very difficult issues – race, income, war, peace. It has done so when it was difficult to do so. It is not the majority party, it has not met success or made a clear argument because it has sought consensus on issues. It has asserted a point of view, and that is the role of the convention.”
It remains to be seen whether the convention will face anything more than the bottom of a glass next month. But if it does not, Reagan may be walking down Pennsylvania Avenue next January.
Part IV: Betwixt and Between
William Winpisinger said he thinks there’s no difference between Carter and Reagan. How much of a difference does the whole thing make – all those millions of dollars spent, all those thousands of hands shaken, all those hundreds of thousands of miles flown?
Twenty-thousand feet in the air, somewhere between San Francisco and L.A., we asked Jerry Brown just before the June 3rd primaries about the process:
“Do you think now, looking at it, that this election will decide very much?”
Brown shook his head. “I don’t think too many of them have…. I’ve always been skeptical of the difference they made, and the reason for that is, we’re in this transitional age. We’re betwixt and between. People would like to make a difference. But it’s difficult to make a difference at this point in history.”
Peter Hart made the same point: “In the period between 1955 and 1965 we had a sort of all-American tradition: Eisenhower and Kennedy, and basically a whole period of conformity and growth and a feeling of reassurance. Between 1965 and 1975 you have your antihero theory, and certainly Nixon and Johnson fall into that theory. From 1975 to the present – and, more likely than not, on to 1985 – is what I call a transition period. When historians go back to look over it, it’ll be like the period of Fillmore and Polk. I mean, no one will ever remember Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter or whoever.”
The problem is that people don’t want to wait till 1985. They want something now – and so far, they haven’t gotten it.
“Do you think the two-party system is played out?” we asked Winpisinger the day of the platform hearings.
“Our problem is we’re down to one. What we need is a viable second party that provides a voter with a clear-cut choice – and not on the basis of one asshole who’s sixty-nine years old, and the other a peanut farmer from Georgia. We want honest-to-God political choices, and exposure and illumination of the issues.”
“What about Anderson?”
Winpisinger looked like a camel about to vomit. “Eeeeugh, that’s the tragedy of this campaign, to have a bastard like that labeled a liberal, for Christ’s sake. He’s more reactionary than my Aunt Tilly.”
Whatever Winpisinger may feel about the phenomenon, if there’s a cancer on Jimmy Carter’s presidency beyond Kennedy’s final challenge, it probably goes by the name of John Anderson.
Anderson is the candidate of Betwixt and Between, reactionary and progressive, old and new, all bundled up into one centrist package. It is still too soon to say how he will do. In June he was still being held in the gate by campaign strategist David Garth. Anderson’s test will come in September, when the two main party conventions are over and voters are looking directly through the telescope at November. If Jimmy Carter comes limping into view, how many will there be ready to cry excitedly, “Four More Years”?