The Making of the Remaking of Edward M. Kennedy

Three years ago, Edward Moore Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency of the United States began with a series of errors.   

On November 4, 1979, two days before Kennedy would formally announce his candidacy to a Faneuil Hall Marketplace crowd of supporters, the Columbia Broadcasting System televised a documentary entitled “Teddy.” Narrated by correspondent Roger Mud, the bulk of the hour-long show was consumed by an interview with a stumbling, mumbling Kennedy who could not even convincingly articulate why he wanted to be president. “On the stump,” Mudd advised his viewers, “Kennedy can be dominating, imposing, and masterful. But off the stump, in personal interviews, he can become stilted, elliptical, and at times appear as if he really doesn’t want America to get to know him.” Although “Teddy” was seen by only a handful of viewers (its competition that night was the first TV showing of Jaws), the program revealed the candidate’s initial problem: he appeared to have almost no idea of what he was doing. Since the American public found out that same day that Iranian militants had seized the US Embassy and taken employees as hostages, this impression was especially damaging.

The second miscalculation could be found in the early direction of the Kennedy campaign. Ted Kennedy told people he was running against Jimmy Carter’s lack of leadership, while he had no serious quibbles with the administration’s economic policies. “Kennedy Says That Leadership, Not Economic Policy, Is at Issue,” noted the New York Times. This wishy-washiness did not capture the hearts and minds of the Democratic constituency: the national polls that showed Kennedy leading by two-to-one margins in the summer of 1979 had the incumbent president in the lead by December.   

On January 28, 1980, after a two-to-one loss to Carter in the Iowa caucuses, Kennedy found his voice and his issues. At a speech at Georgetown University, in Washington, Kennedy attacked the administration’s support for the deposed shah of Iran, called for a strong anti-Soviet stance in the face of that country’s invasion of Afghanistan, criticized the draft-registration program, and demanded a gas-rationing plan. By this time, however, a third problem had developed: the Kennedy campaign had lost its fund-raising momentum. Kennedy could now convince people he had a reason for running, but he couldn’t make a case for winning. Advertising was cut to a minimum, and at the end, in California, not a single paid TV commercial was aired by the campaign.   

“That campaign was created existentially,” says Kennedy press secretary Robert Shrum. “It was willed to happen, rather than reasoned out. We all learned a lot: the need for advance preparation, clear lines of authority, the importance of media, the necessity of a fund-raising structure….   

“But Kennedy has a capacity to grow and learn. He’s extraordinary. The public consciousness of him in the seventies was that he was a kind of deus ex machina of American politics, but the testing of the 1980 campaign revealed both the warts and the strengths in him.”   

The testing is over now. This year there is a Senate campaign, and the polls suggest it is nearly impossible for Kennedy to lose. Next year, the campaign for the presidency begins in earnest. The Ted Kennedy of this year, and the next…will not stumble. Or mumble. He will not be surrounded by a family in crisis, but rather will become a symbol of responsible fatherhood. He will not follow docilely someone else’s economic line; he will bring forth his own. He will not be a macho party guy; he will bring key women advisors into his organization, and promote a new Equal Rights Amendment.    

He will, as his Massachusetts senatorial colleague Paul Tsongas has stated, capture the “vibrant new constituencies” with his leadership on the nuclear-arms freeze. He will reach out. Be a man of the people. A leader.   

And, in 1984, if everything goes right, if the economy remains poor, if Ronald Reagan runs again, a new Ted Kennedy will emerge to capture the Democratic nomination, and the forty-first presidency of the United States.   

New. Improved. Wishy-washy Charlie Brown transformed into dashing Prince Valiant.   

At least, that’s the strategy.