Ted Kennedy Remembers the 1980 Democratic Convention
In 1980, Senator Ted Kennedy ran against incumbent Jimmy Carter. Kennedy lost to Carter and he went to the convention.
From our Edward M. Kennedy Oral History Project, Kennedy reflected back on that convention. His speech was well remembered, including the awkward moment of a handshake.
Kennedy: ...think going into the convention, the focus was on what they call “the faithful delegate.” We had been doing better across the country, and the Democrats seemed to be increasingly interested in our candidacy. One of the things was that some of the delegates selected and pledged to Carter early appeared to have been willing to support my candidacy later in the process, but there had been a change in the rules put in by Carter that said that once a delegate was selected as pledged, they had to stay that way. They call it the “faithful delegate rule,” which means that if they pledged, they couldn’t change their mind. That caused resentment with the delegates, just generally was not popular. So we made that our principal target: the platform on issues of the economy and health and other domestic and foreign policy issues, and to change the faithful delegate rule.
We had an outside chance of changing the faithful delegate rule, and it needed to have the combination of—I remember Cyril Wecht of Pennsylvania having 15 or 20 votes, and then there were some blacks in South Carolina who were prepared to go. Others were prepared to go—Louisiana and some of the others—but all of them wanted to be the ones who put us over. They didn’t want to be the base group. We couldn’t get some to be willing to be the base group to start the vote to change the rule. All of them wanted to be the ones to put them over. And so finally Paul Kirk just said, “We can’t do it. We can’t put those numbers together.” Even though I’d gone around and spoken in a lot of these caucuses, even in the caucuses that had not had overwhelming Kennedy support, and we got a great reception in those caucuses.
I had a meeting with Carter before the convention. We had challenged him to a debate and indicated that if we had the debate, I might be willing to withdraw. He was giving that consideration, and then he said that we’d express our views through the platform committees...
Things about the speech that were very important are that every night when I got back to the hotel at 10:30, my sisters were there. All of my sisters: Jean [Kennedy Smith], Pat [Kennedy Lawford], and Eunice [Kennedy Shriver] were there. And they would come in the room, and they would work for a couple of hours on the talk. The beginning part was authored and suggested, and other parts were done by [Robert] Shrum, but the part that bothers me and troubles me is the box that had all of these changes is gone. Someone stole it out of my office. So I don’t have the record from the very earliest copies to the very end.
That speech was completely altered and completely changed. We laid it out on the floor, put all of it out on the floor, and I can always remember being upstairs, and all my sisters were reading different parts of it, saying, “Look, Teddy, you have this part here....” They have very good judgment and very good political sense and are really good editors. Pat reads it, and used to read everything, and is very good, and Jean as well, and Eunice has a lot of common sense. And they all were very sharp. They’re still sharp, but they were particularly sharp then, and they had all been a part of the campaign. They had a very important impact. I remember that, and that’s never gotten out, but every night from about ten to one—we weren’t doing anything in the evenings, but every night we came back there and worked on it and made changes. They’d redraft that part in the second, and incorporate that thing, and it would be there again the next night.
Dr. Stephen Knott: We really should get on the record the handshake lore.
Kennedy: Well, after my speech, there was a wonderful reaction and a great reception for it. We stayed there for some time, and then went back to the hotel. I was there the next day. The next day, actually, at lunch, I went with my sisters to P.J. Clarke’s. I remember having hamburgers and stuff like that coming back.
I can’t remember. Was mine Tuesday night? And then we had the platform, I think this was Wednesday? And then he spoke Thursday night? Was that what it was? They were there Wednesday, and they were doing the platform. I couldn’t believe that we were still battling and fighting over the platform. We were getting calls all afternoon and through the evening about, “We will take this; we won’t take that....” And someone said, “Well, they have the votes to vote it, but we could have minority reports,” so the people were going to be able to still speak about these things, which drove the Carter people crazy, too.
We had all of this tension going all the way through, and I had a very substantial group of supporters who said they would be very offended after all of this battle on the platform if I even went on the stage with Carter. There was a very substantial group. And then there was another group who said, “You should.” But I think it was very disputed—very good people, too.
The Carter people weren’t really sure whether I was going to stay, but they didn’t make any effort. I was there all day Wednesday and all day Thursday, as I mentioned. He could have said, “Well, you come down; I’d love to see you, and bring your family down. Rosalynn [Carter] would love to thank you.” They could have gotten all the pictures in the world at that place, and, “I’d like to ask you if you can come on up.” I’d have to say yes, or done it on Thursday. Or come up to my place! That would have been gracious, to come up and say, “Can I come by and congratulate you?” That’s what I thought probably he’d do. You think in your own mind that’s probably what you’d do.
But they were continuing to fight on these things. We were still fighting with them on it. And then there was a question whether we would go, but I had told them that we felt that I would go, and that’s when I told the Secret Service we’d leave at night afterwards. I had to go back, because that’s when Secret Service leaves you. They leave you off at home that night, and boom, they’re gone. And so, I said, “Well, where will we be?” And they said, “You can stay in a hotel, because your reception will run 25 minutes, and his will go 25-35.” I said, “That’s fine.”
So, boom! His speech ended; down we went. We had an escort down there. For 15 minutes, 17 minutes, it was silent in that place. The whole thing was all over. And so, instead of going to the holding room, all I heard was, “Come on up! You’ve got to run up! Everybody’s worrying, wondering, ‘Where the hell have you been?’” They were bitching because I was late. It’s unbelievable because when I said I’d stay there, it was fine with me. I didn’t care. “No, no. You don’t have to.”
And then, as you saw, when I went on the platform, they had a whole series of other people who went on. I shook his hand, shook Rosalynn’s hand. And right behind me was Tip O’Neill, and right behind him was the party—Bob Strauss, and a whole series of party leaders all crowding in there. You look at the picture of that podium, there are 30 people there, and not just me and him, and me over on the side. You could see all the other people who were going there. Mondale was on that. Joan Mondale was there. We had the one picture facing the crowd where Carter was on the one side, and I think it’s Bob Strauss and Mondale, and then me, and then next to me is, I think, Mrs. Carter. I think she came over, pulled me on in.
I must have shaken hands with him two or three times. But I didn’t elevate his hand; he made no effort to elevate mine! I thought it was proper enough. But, as the press pointed out, there wouldn’t be any pictures of me raising his hand, which I had not expected to do, but if he had raised both of our hands, I would not have resisted it, certainly.
We had a conversation some time afterward. I’m amazed that we don’t have the notes, because I always remember writing notes every time I’ve sat down with a President about what we were going to do, or what I was going to do in the campaign. I asked him for some help on a couple of dinners, and he said he would help, and he asked me to go to some of the places, and I said I would.
Bryan Craig is a Senior Researcher for the Presidential Oral History Program and has worked on the Edward M. Kennedy Oral History Project