U.S.A

A victory without grace

Michael Posner August 25 1980
U.S.A

A victory without grace

Michael Posner August 25 1980

A victory without grace

U.S.A

Michael Posner

James Earl Carter Jr. began the morning of his coronation on the run, a six-km jaunt through Central Park in the company of Secret Service joggers and the ever-attendant press. He is an ungainly runner, his elbows and knees oddly out of sync as though running were a sport he had learned from a manual. But he is also tenacious and gets the job done. That is precisely what the president did last week in New York, earning the nomination of the Democratic party’s 38th national convention and the right to challenge Republican Ronald Reagan in the fall. Carter’s victory was not resounding and neither was it stylish— but he won.

The president came to New York battered by the polls, by the fallout from brother Billy’s Libyan liaison and by the dogged campaign of Senator Edward Kennedy. Yet he managed to escape, in Dylan Thomas’ phrase, “the ambush of his wounds,” and whether his survival was due to luck (as some Kennedy supporters might suggest) or political savvy is no longer relevant. The 3,331 sweating delegates on the floor of Madison Square Garden may have harbored fears about his electability, but despite internal divisions they were clearly not prepared to consign their hopes to anyone else.

In one sense, the convention was over almost before it had begun when the delegates voted on Monday night to accept rule F(3)(c). This controversial loyalty clause—opposed both by Kennedy and by those who wanted neither Carter nor Kennedy at the top of the ticketbound delegates to casting first ballots for the candidate they had pledged to represent during the Democratic primaries and caucuses. Accepting the rule thus ensured the Carter verdict, since he had locked up a healthy majority of Democrats in winning 23 of 34 primaries.

Kennedy had spent the better part of Sunday in New York, making one last effort to sway Carter delegates. In a whirlwind blitz through midtown Manhattan he met with six separate caucuses and, hoping to pressure Carter, freed his own delegates to vote for the candidate of their choice. The ploy failed. Carter delegates, buoyed by the president’s handling of the Billy Carter issue at his Aug. 4 press conference, held firm. That the White House had engaged campaign chief Robert

Strauss, Vice-President Walter Móndale, First Lady Rosalynn Carter and chief strategist Hamilton Jordan to talk personally with every Carter delegate thought to be soft on the open convention certainly did not hurt. Carter won the rollcall vote by a decisive majority, and Teddy Kennedy emerged from his 16th-floor suite at the Waldorf-Astoria

to congratulate the president and to withdraw his own name from the nowacademic nomination exercise.

Yet even before the Monday vote there were clear signs that Kennedy’s gaze was fixed at a point somewhere beyond F(3)(c). His tone was more con-

ciliatory, his mien less intense. “I would work hard for the Democratic nominee,” he told reporters on Face the Nation, “if his commitment to traditional Democratic principles is not cosmetic,

but sincere.” That was exactly the signal the president’s men had been waiting for. Shortly thereafter they capitulated to Kennedy demands on four contentious economic platform issues and spoke confidently of the senator’s support for Carter in the presidential campaign. Said Strauss: “The senator has always been constructive. There’s no reason to think he won’t be now.” Yet doubt remained. Kennedy himself was noncommittal and refused to pledge support—or the muscle of the party’s liberal wing—in the campaign. If the Carter people seemed uncommonly solicitous of Kennedy, it was out of need, not friendship. Recent polls show Carter’s strength ebbing in key industrial states—New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey; Kennedy organizations are strong there and his personal magnetism is immense. For Carter to beat Ronald Reagan he must win the northeast, and only Kennedy can

help him do it. Hence, capitulation on platform debates; hence the invitation to Kennedy to address the delegates Tuesday night.

That speech electrified the convention. Evoking the memory of his late brother John, he said: “I am convinced that we as a people are ready to give something back to our country in return for all it has given us.” For the first time, Democrats ceased their private quarrels and listened. Fifty-one times they interrupted—but only to applaud and cheer and wave the Kennedy placards. Kennedy mentioned the president’s name just once, near the end of his speech—a stark sentence of congratulation. He affirmed what he termed the soul of the Democratic party: its commitment to the cause of the common man. It was an eloquent valedictory, not only to Kennedy’s own campaign but to those liberal principles American voters have deemed outmoded. And when it was over, Kenne-

'A big round of applause for Teddy, who has graciously stepped aside'

dy’s clenched left fist raised in that majestic salute evoked a 39-minute demonstration—a longer, noisier and infinitely more joyful celebration than that which greeted Jimmy Carter two nights later. Indeed, in the view of many seasoned observers, the convention belonged to Ted Kennedy. He provided its mystery and its rare moments of magic. The Carter effort to unite Democrats and turn the rhetorical artillery on Ronald Reagan was ultimately beyond the reach of Carter’s 36 floor whips and the tight political organization run by Strauss and Jordan. It was Kennedy’s blessing the president needed, and both men knew it. And even when he finally deigned to bestow it, issuing a curt fivesentence statement endorsing the president and pledging his support, die-hard Kennedy loyalists refused to go along. During Wednesday night’s nomination proceedings, nearly all of Kennedy’s delegates voted for him—even though the cause was plainly hopeless. More than devotion to the Kennedy myth, their ballot seemed to represent a distinct lack of faith in Jimmy Carter.

Various union members and black delegates were dissatisfied with Carter’s prenomination statement on the platform, in which the president agreed to the “spirit and principle” of job-creation programs but declined to accept the proposed $12-billion price tag. Some Democrats even went so far as to stage a quiet walkout before Carter began his own acceptance speech Thursday night.

It was a memorable night in American politics, but not a good night for the president. His address was flat, his voice strained and almost plaintive, as if he were trying to make the delegates forget Ted Kennedy’s performance. He blew some lines, referring at one point to the late Hubert Horatio Hornblower (instead of Humphrey). And when he proudly referred to his administration’s commitment to draft registration, a sustained chorus of boos went up. Even when he scored points against Reagan, the delegates cheered perfunctorily— although Carter operatives had packed the hall with 8,000 extra enthusiasts.

What gave the evening its drama was once again Teddy Kennedy. A regal presence, last of two dozen prominent Democrats summoned to the podium, he strode up the stairs, raised the clenched fist and nodded several times, his face frozen in an expression of calm resignation that seemed to say to his disciples: It’s all right... my time will come.

High above the Garden’s floor the balloon mechanism malfunctioned. Scheduled to descend in a rush, they trickled down indifferently. Carter had won, but the gods seemed content to reserve judgment.