Kennedy cannot translate his personal appeal into victories for other candidates, as people like Dick Clark of Iowa or William Hathaway of Maine, incumbent Democratic senators who lost their seats despite heavy campaign assistance from Teddy, can tell you. But a Kennedy campaign appearance is powerful political medicine, nonetheless.
“He’s a very exciting speaker. When he came for a fund-raiser,” Senator Hathaway recalls, “we got over $50,000. He draws a bigger crowd than almost any other speaker I can think of.”
Is he a better speaker than, say, Jimmy Carter?
“Well,” Hathaway says, “the President is a different kind of speaker. He’s more low-key than Kennedy. But his speaking is very effective.”
It is not, of course. Kennedy is simply the best political speaker in America today. As James Reston wrote in the New York Times, “He dominated the recent Democratic Party’s midterm convention in Memphis, not so much by the power of his logic on the need for national health insurance as by the passion of his speech.”
When Kennedy speaks, people listen. He can play an audience like an organ, pulling out stops and pounding on keys to provoke any effect he desires, whether he’s telling an audience of elderly people about his concern for the national health program, an AFL-CIO convention about the depredations of the Business Round Table, or a group of townsfolk in Lewiston, Maine, that “it’s a grand plasir pour moi être ici ce soir. Je parle tous le monde en français ce soir.”
What the audience wants, the audience gets in a Teddy Kennedy speech. And what Kennedy wants—a grand emotional response—he never fails to receive. Nobody has ever been bored by a Teddy Kennedy speech.
Here, in part, lies the secret of his success. Despite his money, his fame, and his power, despite even the legacy of his two brothers, Kennedy would not be a presidential contender today if he had the oratorical limits of a Dwight Eisenhower—or of a Jimmy Carter. His flamboyant speechmaking power makes for good copy, and good television, and the media have done their best to keep him in the public eye. He is one of the few practicing politicians of national stature today who could easily make a career as a television star. He may not be able to get other people elected with his speeches; he is always able to get himself attention.
Why, then, does he do it? Why does he travel around the nation, nettling his President and smothering himself with press coverage?
Like Theodore White’s archetypal White Man, he does what gives him pleasure in life. And though he denies it, it is obvious that he derives great pleasure from appearing before crowds, smiling and singing, haranguing and abjuring, basking in the warm glow of the attention and adulation of thousands. He likes being the object of attention. He likes being applauded. He likes knowing that he can set thousands of people cheering, hissing, voting, or marching with the sound of his voice alone. The pleasure is obvious in his face as he speaks.
And frankly, what else would he do? He is not a quiet man, given to introspection and self-searching. He takes no comfort in the study of philosophy. The Senate is his only job, a job he devotes inordinate amounts of time to. And when the Senate is out of session, he campaigns. He can’t be expected to sit at home alone, after all.
He says he expects to support Carter in 1980. But if Carter is knocked out in the primaries, then, all that campaigning and all that press attention will come in very handy indeed.
“I don’t think Teddy will run in 1980,” William Hathaway says. “The only thing I think that would make him run would be if somebody like Jerry Brown were to come along and beat Carter in the New Hampshire primary. Then, I think, Teddy might jump in and run for it.”
The Hathaway scenario is the one most commonly accepted in Washington political circles. It would profit Kennedy little to spark his own internecine battle in the party in 1980, but he could profit much from the spoils of someone else’s fight, just as his brother Robert did after Eugene McCarthy humiliated Lyndon Johnson in New Hampshire in 1968.
At the same Memphis conference where Kennedy was upstaging his party’s President, Jerry Brown of California was playing a little game of his own. Two of his operatives arrived at the convention and set to work chatting up the members of the New Hampshire delegation, praising the accomplishments of their boss, and, of course, trying to make contacts in the New Hampshire party organization on the chance that the Zen governor will be running there next year.
Although the response from New Hampshire was chilly, the Brown people were undaunted, and members of his staff were soon finding convenient reasons to visit the Granite State.
The same week that Brown’s people were invading Memphis, Kennedy announced the addition to his staff of Carl Wagner, a political operative who formerly worked for the AFL-CIO. Kennedy had been getting on for more than a year without a political tactician on his staff—after all, a senator whose seat is safe until 1982 doesn’t need someone to advise him on campaign strategy.
A 1980 presidential candidate just might, however.
For the moment, Kennedy is out there, giving his speeches, enjoying himself, having fun, and leading exactly the life he damn well chooses, caring not whether it scares the hell out of his President or titillates the press. He will likely hold to his line that he is supporting Carter for re-election for a good long time yet. But Jimmy Carter knows that Teddy Kennedy’s loyalty does not lie first with his party, or with his president.
It lies with Teddy Kennedy.