The last time the Democratic Party had held a midterm convention, in Kansas City in 1974, the conferees had had a lot to talk about. The party had been out of power since 1968, and even with Watergate, it ran a real danger of staying out of office for six more years. The obvious choice for President, Teddy Kennedy, had taken himself out of the running. Nobody else seemed a shoo-in for the nomination. Jimmy Carter was practically unheard of at the time.
“They mobbed Kennedy,” Congressman Nick Mavroules recalls of the Kansas City gathering. “Everywhere he went, all eyes were on him. Heads turned when he walked into a room.” Even though he had ruled himself out as the standard-bearer, the party still turned to Teddy, still longed to pin its hopes on him.
The conference in Memphis, of course, was different. The Democratic Party had a sitting President, a leader, a man it could look up to. Jimmy Carter flew down to Tennessee to open the meeting with a Friday evening speech.
For a little over half an hour, the President of the United States preached on his themes of inflation and foreign affairs. His party heard him with ill-disguised indifference, and applauded politely when he was through. It was, at best, an embarrassment.
But Carter’s real embarrassment came the next day, when Teddy Kennedy addressed a conference workshop on national health policy. The workshop was only one of twenty-four held that weekend; yet it attracted more than two thousand spectators. Kennedy lost no chance to lambaste his party’s President.
“The hopes and dreams of millions of our citizens are riding on our leadership,” he told the crowd in full, rich, ringing tones. “Sometimes a party must sail against the wind. We cannot heed the call of those who say it is time to furl the sail. We know that some things in America today are wrong. It is wrong that prices are rising as rapidly as they are… I support the fight against inflation. But no such fight can be effective unless the fight is fair… There could be no more divisive issues for America and for our party than a democratic policy for drastic slashes in the federal budget at the expense of the elderly, the poor, the black, the sick, the cities, and the unemployed.”
Those are fighting words, words that come from a man who sounds as if he wants to be President. As long as a Democrat sits in the White House, however, Kennedy can claim he has no interest in the job—a claim he could never make during the Nixon/Ford years—and go on barnstorming the nation, waiting for opportunity to knock.