The President’s man was mellow, and just a tad feisty, after a postprandial brandy or two. He had come out of Georgia with Jimmy Carter, ridden the same rocket to the stars as the man from Plains, and had seen his name become a household word because his friend had become President. Now he is fiercely loyal to and protective of Carter.
Talk turned to Teddy, and what the White House thinks he’s doing.
“Oh,” said Carter’s man, with a twinkle of defiance in his eye. “I expect we’ll get some opposition from within the party in 1980. But don’t worry. We’re going to win.”
Will that mean fighting it out with Teddy in the primaries?
He just smiled.
Jimmy Carter is not smiling. He gets a bit uptight whenever the name Kennedy is mentioned. At a December press conference, his irritation showed clearly.
“I have a unique perspective in this country as President,” Carter told his audience. “I can look at a much broader range of issues than does Senator Kennedy. He is extremely interested, for instance, in the comprehensive health program, having devoted several years of his legislative life to the position. Also, I think it’s fair to say that Senator Kennedy represents a family within the Democratic Party which is revered because of his two brothers and the contributions of his family to our party. There’s a special aura of appreciation to him that’s personified because of the position of his family in our nation and our party. That makes him a spokesman not only in his own right, but also of a much broader and expected constituency. I recognize it and have no objection to that.”
It was an uncharacteristic explosion of bitterness from a man well known for keeping himself in tight control. The suggestion that Kennedy’s popularity is in large part due to the memory of his martyred brothers cuts close to the bone; the statement that Kennedy gets to pick his shots on sexy issues while the President has to grapple with a wide range of problems reflects Carter’s deepest complaint.
This is the lament of the Gray Man confronted with the White Man. Carter, who worked his way out of the godforsaken hamlet of Plains, Georgia by dint of talent, application, and boundless ambition, finds himself faced with a rich man with a playboy’s image and a coruscating smile, who apparently wants Carter’s job. It is maddening for a humble country boy who believed in Horatio Alger.
Kennedy, of course, says it isn’t so. “I expect [Carter] to seek the nomination, and I expect to support him in the campaign for re-election,” he insists.
But while Carter sits in the White House, coping with the everyday problems of leading the Free World, he watches Kennedy, the man who expects to support him in 1980, running around the country acting very much like the man who would be king. In the past six months, Kennedy has campaigned for candidates in sixteen states; broken publicly with Carter over the issue of national health; conferred with President Brezhnev in Moscow and announced the impending release of a large number of dissidents (the Kremlin later denied this story); attended a Soviet conference on health care; performed the most famous political baby-kissing of the year on Jessica Katz, the “littlest refusenik,” as the more maudlin press dubbed her, upon her arrival at Logan Airport; held healthcare hearings in Denver, Los Angeles, and Chicago; announced that, as the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he would set to work on a new charter for the FBI; held hearings on the politically sexy Tuition Assistance Fund program, a plan engineered by Boston University president John Silber that would set up a nationwide, federally funded loan program for college students; endorsed the film Superman, calling its title character a genuine “American hero” in a frivolous but much publicized statement; and been photographed with the Bee Gees, the world’s most popular rock group. And then there was Memphis.