Long before Ronald Reagan took office the Democratic Party had been coming unglued. The 1963 assassination of John Kennedy was the first in a parade of horribles that included the loss of the “Solid South’’ after the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, an unpopular Asian war, Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal from the 1968 presidential race, the killing of Robert Kennedy, and the turbulent convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey and led to the election of Richard Nixon, who went on to swamp George McGovern in 1972 — a South Dakotan who carried Massachusetts but none of the other 49 states, including his own.
The final fracture to a line of progressive leadership that began with FDR was incumbent Jimmy Carter’s 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan, which also cost the Democrats the Senate for the first time since 1955 and kept them out of the White House for a dozen years until the drought was broken by Bill Clinton. In “Camelot’s End’’ political correspondent Jon Ward provides a thorough and readable chronicle of how the bitter primary fight between Carter and Ted Kennedy and the Democrats’ misplaced nostalgia for the past sabotaged their future and how their division eerily foreshadowed the Republicans’ own civil war in 2016 that put Donald Trump in the White House.
It’s quite likely that Carter would have lost to Reagan on his own. The untimely confluence of rising inflation, soaring interest rates, unemployment, energy crisis, Iran hostage crisis, and the former Georgia governor’s tone-deaf approach made him the most unpopular chief executive in polling history. The 1976 ascension of the devoutly Baptist peanut farmer owed much to a post-Watergate desire for reform and rectitude and also to Carter’s savvy about the redesigned nomination process, which rewarded entering every primary and caucus and piling up delegates early amid a crowded field.
Still, Carter defeated Gerald Ford by barely a percentage point in the popular tally and his 57-vote margin in the Electoral College was the smallest in 60 years. When the economy continued to sink, opportunity beckoned for Kennedy and those who yearned for a return to the early 1960s. “The Kennedys . . . had become a kind of royal family in exile,” wrote political columnist Jules Witcover.
Ironically Nixon had assumed that Kennedy would be his 1972 re-election rival. That possibility disappeared during the summer of 1969 with Chappaquiddick and Kennedy’s unconvincing explanation of how a young woman had died in the back seat of a car that he was driving late at night.
“It marks the end of Teddy,” Nixon told chief of staff H.R. Haldeman. Kennedy opted not to run in both 1972 and 1976, but by 1978 felt he was ready to take on an uninspiring incumbent. Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s top political adviser, warned his colleagues after hearing Kennedy’s podium-pounding speech at the midterm convention in Memphis that he was convinced the senator would be in the race.
Yet a year later Kennedy still didn’t have an answer for Chappaquiddick or a reason for a candidacy. “Oh my God,” CBS interviewer Roger Mudd thought after two bumbling and baffling sessions with the senator. “He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know why he’s running.”
Luckily for Kennedy most of the nation tuned into the network premiere of “Jaws’’ so missed his disappointing performance just days before the announcement of his candidacy. But pundits, political operatives, and donors did not. It was a misstep that hobbled the nascent bid.
On the trail, the Massachusetts senator appeared rusty and unsure of himself. Verbal stumbles mounted. At one stop in Iowa Kennedy referred to “fam farmilies.’’ Small gaffes, but they eroded the image of the presidential hopeful viewed as the heir to a shining dynasty.
“One sentence keeps recurring in my brain: The guy doesn’t want it,” Globe columnist Ellen Goodman concluded after following Kennedy around the state, observing that he was running “dutifully, fatalistically, unhappily.”
There were also bigger mistakes, one of the most damaging being Kennedy’s assessment of the deposed shah of Iran as a despot who’d stolen “billions from his country.’’ The former ruler had been a US ally, but more importantly Kennedy’s comments seemed to bolster the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers who were holding American diplomats hostage.
Carter beat Kennedy in Iowa, crushed him in New Hampshire, and swept him in the South. Had he been a more compelling leader in a time of disquiet Carter probably would have knocked Kennedy out of the race. But the ongoing hostage drama in Iran and the “stagflated’’ economy reinforced a sense among the citizenry that “America seemed to just keep losing,’’ Ward writes.
Carter even managed to dampen the most uplifting moment of his presidency, the US hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice’’ at Lake Placid, by strong-arming a boycott of that summer’s Moscow Olympics, a significant omission in Ward’s account. The American absence allowed the Soviet Union to dominate the medal table and handed its government a priceless propaganda victory.
So while Carter already had sufficient votes for the nomination, polls showed him more than 25 points behind Reagan in midsummer, and there were growing calls for an open convention in New York. While the president’s backers stifled that possibility with a floor vote that prompted Kennedy to withdraw from the race, Carter’s victory was unsatisfying.
Kennedy, who was given a prolonged ovation by the delegates, kept Carter waiting for 20 minutes after his acceptance speech on the following night and declined the expected raised-arms show of unity. It was, writer Theodore White observed, as if Kennedy “had appeared at the wedding of his chauffeur.’’
Carter was swamped by Reagan in November, and Kennedy never ran for the presidency again. Their battle, writes Ward, “injured each of them significantly, but also freed them.”
Kennedy, after a subsequent decade of personal dissolution, rebounded to become the liberal “lion of the Senate.’’ Carter spent the subsequent decades as a global ambassador devoted to human rights, conflict mediation, and public health, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
The Democrats, having finally shed their Camelot wistfulness, remade themselves in the 1990s under the direction of a different Southerner. Now, Republicans are facing a similar tectonic reshaping. As Carter supporters did in 1980, backers of Trump were forced to battle on the convention floor to ensure their candidate’s elevation, haunted by the spirits of bygone days. “Whether Trump is the last gasp of the Reagan coalition, just as Carter marked the end of the FDR era for the Democratic Party, remains to be seen,” Ward muses.
By Jon Ward
Twelve, 400 pp., $28
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John Powers is a former Globe sports reporter who also shared in a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.