A Carter-Kennedy conspiracy?

At the funeral last week for Coretta Scott King, a lot of people took the opportunity to bash President Bush and his policies while they had the spotlight. One particular instance struck me as odd at the time, and I found myself speculating if there might have been a bit of subtext to the message. And the more I thought about it, the more likely I thought it might be true.

President Carter, in his statement, cited the example of the surveillance and harassment Dr. and Mrs. King suffered in the 1960’s, and used that as an example of the sorts of abuses he felt might be committed under President Bush’s watch. As expected, it brought the usual responses: Bush’s critics lauded it, his defenders denounced it as inappropriate and wildly inaccurate, and a few folks pointed out that the King surveillance was done at the direction of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, with the approval of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson — all Democrats.

Which left me wondering if Carter had intended just that to happen.

Earlier this week I said some kind things about Carter personally. That was in the context of slamming him politically, and I was attempting to follow Winston Churchill’s adage of “when you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.” But Carter is only human, and not above petty spite on occasion.

Let’s look back at 1980. Jimmy Carter was running for re-election as president, but he was in deep trouble. Under his watch, the economy had tanked, our reputation around the world was in shambles, and the nation was essentially being held hostage by Iran. Meanwhile, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, and we were seemingly impotent to do anything about it. Carter’s chances of winning a second term were slim.

At that moment Ted Kennedy made what was possibly the single worst decision of his political career: he challenged Carter for the Democratic nomination. It was a decision that, arguably, destroyed the presidential ambitions of both men, along with nearly a generation of Democrats.

Kennedy never really had much of a chance at the presidency after Chappaquiddick, but a lot of the party faithful, seeking a return of Camelot and past Democratic glories, convinced Ted that 1980 was his big chance to be the savior of the party and rescue it from Carter’s incompetence. It was actually going along quite swimmingly (if you’ll pardon the word) until he was interviewed on TV by Roger Mudd. Mudd tossed him what should have been a softball question — “why do you want to be president?” — and Teddy had absolutely no answer. Instead of trotting out the stock answers of duty and love of country, or even the honest answers of family obligations and a sense of entitlement, Ted simply babbled incoherently, driving a final nail into the dreams of another Kennedy administration.

But Teddy did achieve one thing: he further weakened Carter, who was decisively crushed by Ronald Reagan in 1980. It’s arguable whether or not Carter could have staved off Reagan without Kennedy’s challenge, but it certainly didn’t help.

And with Reagan’s landslide (49 44 states!), the Democrats found themselves utterly shut out of the White House for 12 years, as Reagan handily crushed his 1984 challenger (Walter Mondale), and then his vice-president beat Michael Dukakis in 1988. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Democrats regained the Oval Office.

And that brings up another point that must rankle Carter. Bill Clinton, like he, was a southern governor who was elected president. But Clinton was far more successful as president than Carter was — and Clinton, unlike Carter, chose to embrace the Kennedys instead of keeping them at arms’ length.

So I am left wondering: when Jimmy Carter was preparing his remarks for Mrs. King’s funeral, loading up the grenades he’d toss at President Bush, did he also sneak in one to throw in Ted Kennedy’s lap? Did he intend to, in some way, remind folks that the acts he was citing as so despicable were done by those two martyred icons of the Democratic party, Ted’s brothers?

I have no way of knowing. Hell, I don’t know if anyone besides President Carter himself truly knows. But I have my suspicions…

(Reagan’s electoral victory corrected — thanks, NJC, for catching my typo. Reagan won 44 states in 1980, 49 in 1984.)

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