Many have heard the Kennedy family referred to as living in a modern Camelot. Powerful patriarch, Joseph, and his sons strove to make a difference in the political realm. But when did it all come to an end for them and how did America turn away from this glorified view of the Kennedys? Perhaps they never have, though Jon Ward argues that the political Camelot came crashing down with the 1980 Democratic National Convention, dragging the Party along with it. All this primarily due to an embittered campaign for a presidential nominee. Incumbent President Jimmy Carter took the stage at Madison Square Gardens to seek the formal nod by delegates to take the Democrats into the campaign to face the electorate in November. Standing in his way was Edward ‘Teddy’ Kennedy, the last of the political brothers and a powerhouse all his own. Ward takes the reader on a journey to see how these men destroyed their political bases, the Party, and all but handed Ronald Reagan the presidency in 1980, leaving the country in awe during a time it needed solace the most. Opening with great biographical narratives told in parallel, Ward discusses the upbringing of both men—Kennedy with a silver spoon lodged in his mouth, while Carter sweated it out picking peanuts—and how different they were. Kennedy had politics in his blood, but the shadow of his two brothers seemed to stymie his ability to stay on the beaten path. Carter, a respected Navy veteran, sought to promote his progressive ways in the Deep South, where segregation and racism were the lifeblood of politics. Coming up through the ranks, both men had their foibles, which lingered with them, though Kennedy’s 1969 Chappaquiddick driving debacle that left a young woman dead would seem to have overshadowed much of Carter’s aligning himself with racists in order to secure both the Georgia governor’s mansion and a 1976 run for president. While both men knew the other only in passing, they remained on one another’s radar. Kennedy passed up the chance to run in ‘76, but many felt that he was gearing up for ‘80, though he remained uncommitted. Meanwhile, Carter sat in the Oval Office and faced economic disaster at a time when the American people could not accept anything less than the prosperity they felt the world’s superpower deserved. While Carter had some international successes, these were overshadowed by long gas lines and protests by the American people. Kennedy toiled in the US Senate to create needed legislation for healthcare reforms and tax breaks that would help the middle class. As they geared up for the 1980 campaign, Carter and Kennedy both sought to take the Democratic Party in their own direction, though it was the latter’s decision to challenge a sitting president that left Carter promising to ‘whip his ass’ even before the last Prince of Camelot had formally entered the race. Speaking of entering the race, Ward goes into detail about a CBS special on Teddy Kennedy before he announced, which depicted the man as one who could not dodge the Chappaquiddick disaster from a decade before and had no clear reason for entering the race, even though he was seen as an odds-in favourite and wanted to shape policy in new directions. From there, the primary season began, allowing both men to claw at one another and make gains in different ways. Kennedy stumbled out of the block and found financial limitations paralyse his progress, while Carter was trying to juggle the Iran hostage crisis, which was yet another black mark on his reputation. Even when Carter had the needed delegates to win, Kennedy would not concede, crafting an idea about releasing delegates from their primary commitments when they arrived in New York. Bloodied and bruised, they arrived for the convention to a raucous, yet highly divided Democratic base, all while GOP candidate Ronald Reagan sat back and basked in the knowledge that he would obliterate either man, come November. Ward offers a wonderfully detailed description of the goings-on at the Democratic Convention, including Kennedy’s last attempt to wrestle control away from the sitting president. However, nothing could outdo the events surrounding the last night, when Kennedy handed Carter the snub seen round the world. From there, it was a rocky push through the general election campaign, where Reagan all but handed victory to Carter, who fumbled many chances to bury the ‘television lightweight’. In the end, with Carter trounced and the Democrats in disarray, both men turned away from the presidential limelight. Carter was shunned by his party and turned to a life of humanitarian aid and writing, while Kennedy spent one final decade as a philanderer, while honing his skills as a senator and helped bring the institution together before his death. While it is impossible to know what might have happened in 1980, had things been a little different in the primaries or during the election, there is no doubt that the 1980 left a sour taste in the mouths of many watching the implosion of the Democratic Party by two men who refused to compromise. Camelot is gone, left crumbled by a bumbling third son and other relatives who have passed on. Gritty political battles are also a thing of the past, at least those played out on the convention floor during prime time. But, as we continue to see today, tearing a party apart remains a game that some play for the fun of it, leaving some to wonder if the GOP will resurrect the bloodbath this book depicted in 2020. A powerful narrative that engages the reader with anecdotes and historical accounts, sure to educate and entertain in equal measure. A must-read for political fanatics such as myself, especially those who love American politics.
While I am a fan of political history, particularly as it relates to presidential politics, this book stood out as something even more exceptional. Jon Ward delivers not only a description of the battle for the Democratic nomination in 1980, but serves to present a well-rounded biographical piece of the two main contenders. Mixing in many of the political flavours of the time, Ward supports his claims that this was to be the true litmus test of how the Democrats could meld two of their major factions ahead of another clash with the Republicans. Vowing not to be as criminal as Nixon or as blazé as Ford, the Party wanted to build on its successes, while also trying to ignore some of the domestic disasters that had befallen the Carter Administration since January 1977. In doing so, two men who refused to bow to one another began a battle that would ensure no stone was left unturned and allowed the world to watch as they destroyed one another. Unity was second to victory in August of 1980, with a sitting president being forced to fight for his own party’s stamp of approval, though it was from the last man in a family that had owned the Democrats for decades. Ward uses not only press coverage, but interviews, behind the scenes candid depictions, as well as poll sentiments at the time to develop a narrative that permits the reader to feel right in on the action. Vicious attacks were lodged and stubbornness helped disintegrate any form of coming together before the prime time disaster that encapsulated the Democratic Party coming apart. Who was to blame for all of this? Ward offers some suggestions in his powerful prose, though it is up to the reader to decide in the end. With powerful chapters full of research, Jon Ward offers readers that detailed look into the political goings-on leading up to the 1980 Convention and how it took years for the Democrats to recover and unite to defeat their GOP opponents, at least for the White House. I am so pleased this book found its way onto my radar and hope to find more in line with this style soon.
Kudos, Mr. Ward, for a great story of political undoing in the modern age. I will have to find more of your work, especially if it is as easy to comprehend.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons