President Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale won renomination when the Democrats gathered in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1980, but Carter’s rival, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, captured the convention. Kennedy had scored several significant primary victories toward the end of the nominating contest, but Carter had secured the majority of the delegates. Kennedy’s stirring speech to the delegates on Tuesday night, concluding with, “For all those whose cares have been our concerns, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die,” was one of the best speeches of the past generation. It easily overshadowed Carter’s remarks two nights later.
The mood of the convention was perhaps best illustrated by the tableau on the podium on the closing night. After Carter’s acceptance speech, Kennedy appeared on the crowded dais but seemed to be avoiding the president as he was seeking to lock arms with his challenger. Kennedy did shake hands with Carter, but the two combatants never made the traditional podium embrace. Participants of the convention have shared their recollections with National Journal over the past 12 years. Edited excerpts follow.
Carter campaign aide
My first convention was 1980. I managed it for Carter. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When I got the job in March 1979, I was this young operative, and it was going to be an opportunity for me to learn the delegate-selection rules. It was a very complicated task back then, because you didn’t have the proportional representation deal you have now. In many states you had to go delegate by delegate and get them on the ballot. But it didn’t work out to be a dry run. It worked out to be full-on combat.
It was [the] hardest-fought convention in recent Democratic Party history. Kennedy challenged a sitting president and was determined to take it to the floor. The climactic vote came on a rules challenge on [the] first night of the convention. Kennedy was almost 1,000 delegates behind Carter. And he wanted to challenge the rule that bound delegates to Carter. The rule vote was essentially a nomination vote. I remember Carter later delivering his acceptance speech. And Kennedy joining him for what was supposed to be a great picture. Instead, they awkwardly circled each other on the platform and never raised their hands in unity. It was seen as a party not having come together.
Kennedy convention floor whip
The convention came at a very unusual juncture. Carter, although he prevailed in delegate selection, had performed very poorly in the second
half of the race. The Carter people’s feeling was that the convention should
be a rubber stamp, but there was a lot of unease in the party, and Kennedy
had demonstrated that Carter would be a weak nominee.
The fact that Carter hadn’t debated Kennedy left bitterness with the Kennedy delegates. The fact that Kennedy didn’t quit left Carter delegates feeling bitter.
My memory of the whole convention is so colored by Senator Kennedy’s speech, and how powerful it was and how it moved the delegates on the floor. I remember walking through the Mississippi delegates, and I said to Governor [William] Winter, “What’s going to happen with your vote?” And he said, “We’re all voting for the Kennedy plank.” And he said, “Son, that’s the best speech I’ve heard in my life.”
I never was in the military or combat, but it was unbelievable. All the preliminary negotiations were exacerbated. There had been a couple
of months of skirmishing back and forth. Both campaigns had very passionate supporters.
Mondale’s chief of staff
It was obviously a very tense convention from beginning to end. The Kennedy people certainly had the momentum going for them. No question the Carter-Mondale forces were playing defense. They were trying to protect their interests on the rules, and on the platform for the general election. You could give in on some things, but not on other things. Kennedy felt strongly about the issues he was running on; so did President Carter.
It was a fairly acrimonious convention, but [Kennedy negotiator] Paul Kirk and I remained very good friends. I think I probably did talk to him at the convention. I guess I’ve put a lot of it out of my mind.
If it’s possible to be defeated and have a fundamentally happy memory of the event, what I remember most was Ted Kennedy’s speech. For a whole variety of reasons, the country had not been able to see Kennedy at his best during the primaries. I think with his speech, the country and the delegates did. It was an extraordinary moment.
That speech was written and rehearsed originally as an acceptance speech. It obviously had to be edited and changed, but not a great deal. It seemed to me that was a best way to give him the draft.
I remember riding over [to Madison Square Garden] with Senator Kennedy on the last night of the convention and how that whole event got bollixed up. We had agreed to go to the convention and be on the platform with the president.
In the conversations that kept going back and forth, we said we were willing to leave the hotel at any point, and the Carter campaign didn’t want us to leave. They said, “Please don’t leave during Carter’s acceptance speech, the cameras might cut away. Please don’t leave during the movie, don’t leave when Mondale is being nominated.”
Then the decision was “leave when we’re going to have a demonstration that is going to last a long time.” Well it didn’t, and we didn’t have a New York City police escort, so it took us 40 minutes to get to the hall.
By the time we got there, there was a huge crowd milling around on the podium. Kennedy got on the podium. He and the president couldn’t find each other. They shook hands, but everybody made a big deal out of that.
Carter convention floor whip
The Kennedy people were saying, “Release the delegates.” There was no way that the Carter convention managers were going to do that. They were unhappy that the president was challenged.
The two things I remember about that convention was the floor fight on the platform and, of course, that last night—sort of that dance around the stage, which I must say I don’t think ever should have happened. They should have raised their hands. Kennedy was moving around while Carter wanted to shake his hand. That was humiliating. I think I was sitting in some seats on the side of the podium looking down. I was embarrassed for Carter.
I don’t remember feeling any animosity toward the Kennedy people. Mostly, I felt regret. I was sorry that it had come to that.
White House aide
I was in the Carter administration, and we were not supposed to go to the convention. But they had a [platform] fight on the MX missile, so I went up on Defense Secretary Harold Brown’s plane with [National Security Adviser Zbigniew] Brzezinski. And we briefed people off the convention floor.
But my main job was to keep Brzezinski from the convention floor. The last night, I was sitting in the stands with Brzezinski, and they said, we would like the Cabinet members to come down. He starts getting up, and I said, “You are not a Cabinet member.” He said, “I am Cabinet-level,” and he went down to the stage. And the Massachusetts delegation was right in front, and Brzezinski was booed.
This article appears in the September 3, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.