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.