How Ted Kennedy's '80 Challenge To President Carter 'Broke The Democratic Party' Journalist Jon Ward talks about the chaos that led Kennedy to challenge Carter for the Democratic nomination — and the long-lasting damage it did to the party. Ward's new book is Camelot's End.
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How Ted Kennedy's '80 Challenge To President Carter 'Broke The Democratic Party'

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How Ted Kennedy's '80 Challenge To President Carter 'Broke The Democratic Party'

How Ted Kennedy's '80 Challenge To President Carter 'Broke The Democratic Party'

How Ted Kennedy's '80 Challenge To President Carter 'Broke The Democratic Party'

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Journalist Jon Ward talks about the chaos that led Kennedy to challenge Carter for the Democratic nomination — and the long-lasting damage it did to the party. Ward's new book is Camelot's End.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week.

As candidates begin to emerge and maneuver for the 2020 election, we're going to revisit a presidential nomination battle that took place when the country was in the throes of changes that shook Americans' confidence in their government and their faith in the future. In the late 1970s, inflation and unemployment were high, American hostages were being held in Iran, and a severe energy crisis led to lethal confrontations among motorists in gas lines and a full-blown riot in Levittown, Pa. So in 1980, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, the last of three charismatic brothers who would seek the presidency, took on incumbent President Jimmy Carter, a former peanut farmer and Georgia governor who may have seemed mild-mannered and ineffectual but who could be tough as nails in a political fight.

The result, our guest Jon Ward says, was a civil war within the Democratic Party that would have far-reaching consequences. Jon Ward has covered American politics for more than 20 years. He's currently senior political correspondent for Yahoo News, and he hosts a podcast called "The Long Game." His new book is "Camelot's End: Kennedy Vs. Carter And The Fight That Broke The Democratic Party."

Well, Jon Ward, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, we think of the '60s as a turbulent time in the United States. We have less of an image of the '70s. And you write that when you were researching this material, the 2016 election - the Donald Trump election - that this period didn't seem as foreign to you. Why?

JON WARD: You know, I started writing this book - or I got the idea for it around 2013, so that was quite some time ago. And our politics was pretty tame compared to now. But when I went back and started talking to people about it, I spoke with a woman named Anita Dunn. She had worked for President Obama in the White House, and she actually, it turned out, had worked for the Carter White House. And when I spoke to her about the '70s, she painted such a grim picture of the time in a way that, kind of like you said, I wasn't aware of. She talked about rising unemployment, inflation, you know, something called stagflation. She talked about insecurity on the world stage, worries that Japan was outpacing us, that our economy was falling behind - and just a general sense of malaise, to use a word that became a big part of the problem for President Carter. I wasn't aware of that, but it was something that was so stark in contrast to that time period at which I was talking to her. And then fast-forward a couple of years, our politics becomes incredibly, incredibly dark and tumultuous with the rise of Donald Trump. And so when all of that happened, it wasn't as if it was a surprise to me. But it did - it kind of surprised me that we were re-entering such a dark period because one of the things that attracted me to the story was just how I couldn't believe so much of what had happened. And then, once the politics of the Trump era kind of came along, everything that happened during this story began to actually look a little more tame in comparison.

DAVIES: This is a story of these two prominent Democrats - Jimmy Carter, who was president, Ted Kennedy from the Senate. And I learned in your book that this got really personal. These men really didn't like each other. Let's talk a little bit about each of them - first, Jimmy Carter - elected president in 1976, two years after, you know, Nixon resigned after Watergate. People remember him as the peanut farmer from Georgia. He was governor there, kind of thought of as a kind and decent man. Round out the picture for us. What is less well-known about Carter?

WARD: What I love about this story is the things we don't know about both of these men. I think both of them are really overly caricatured and dismissed oftentimes. Many times, that's for partisan reasons but not always. But what people don't know about Jimmy Carter, most of the time, is that he grew up and came from nothing. He grew up in a house with no running water until he was about 12 years old. This was in southwest Georgia. He was born a couple of years before the Great Depression. And his father was a farmer who was modestly successful - built, over time, some land. This is at the time of sharecroppers, so that was part of their success.

And so he came for nothing. His father gave him a modest amount of sort of foundation to build on. But then, really, Carter got into politics, and we can get to the backstory. You know, the whole story of how he got into politics in the first place and the naval career is interesting. But he got into politics with really no connections. He ran for the state Senate in 1960 and really had to overcome small-town, old-time machine politics and big-time corruption to even get into the state Senate - really drawing on nothing more than his small, you know, chain of local relationships. And then from there, he did a pretty decent job in the state Senate and then again ran for governor with very little in terms of influence or connections.

And really, the hallmark here is just steely determination, relentless will. And then as he got into politics, people began to see that he could be pretty cutthroat. And probably my favorite anecdote from the whole book is that Hunter S. Thompson, the famous writer, called Jimmy Carter one of the three meanest men that he had ever met along with Muhammad Ali and the founder of Hells Angels.

DAVIES: Right. (Laughter) Now, that struck me, too, 'cause we always think of Carter as just such a kind and decent fellow. Carter is governor of Georgia then wages this remarkable campaign in 1976 for president - goes to Iowa, out-organizes everyone and gets the Democratic nomination and is elected president. How did he do in his first couple of years? He really faced some challenges.

WARD: Yeah. It was up and down. I mean, the first year, the biggest problem he had was he was trying to do too much. He had an energy proposal. But what began to kind of slow him down was some scandal with his budget chief. And then from there, things just sort of started to go sideways. But at the same time, in 1978, he has the Camp David Accords, which really kind of rescues his presidency, where he brings the leader of Israel and the leader of Egypt, Sadat and Begin, together to sign a peace accord. And so that really resurrects his time in office. That's heading into 1979. '79 is where things really go off the rails, especially during that summer with the energy crisis and then, later on that year, the hostage crisis.

DAVIES: Right. Let's talk about Ted Kennedy - you know, of perhaps the most famous American political family of the 20th century - his brothers John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy both assassinated, one as president one as a presidential candidate. Who was Ted Kennedy in the mid-'70s?

WARD: That's a great question. In the mid-'70s, he was really at this sort of middle point of his life and career. And he really had failed to do a whole lot at that point. I mean, when he got nominated to the Senate by his brother, even advisers to his brother totally dismissed him and were angered by this nomination. They called it an insult to the Senate.

DAVIES: This was his brother Jack, the president. Right?

WARD: Correct, yes.

DAVIES: He was going to inherit his brother's seat, in effect.

WARD: Yes. They appointed a place holder for two years to allow Teddy to basically grow old enough to be eligible for the job. And so you know, after Bobby was killed in '68, he was immediately thrust into contention for the presidency at the '68 convention, but he turned it down. He considered it, but he turned it down. And then a year later, Chappaquiddick happens. And so that's 1969. And so that really puts the presidency out of consideration in '72 and then again in '76. Carter thought Kennedy was going to run in '76 and was planning to run against him, but Kennedy ended up not doing that.

And so by this time in the mid-'70s, Kennedy is sort of - you know, he's getting the feel of what it means to be a good senator. But he's also - Chappaquiddick is fairly recent in the past, and that's just a huge problem for him politically and a big part of his identity at that point.

DAVIES: Well, let's talk about that. I mean, I remember Chappaquiddick vividly. Some may not. Give us the outlines of what happened and what questions lingered about it.

WARD: Yeah. So it's a year after Bobby's death. It's on the Cape in the summer of 1969. And there was a movie that just came out about it that was well done that - if listeners want to go watch that to get a up close and personal look at it. But basically, Teddy and a couple other older guys about his age get together with, I believe it was, four young campaign workers who were all female from Bobby's campaign. They were called the Boiler Room Girls. And they get together for a party on the Cape. None of the wives were there, so that obviously raises some questions. There's alcohol involved.

And Teddy - and according to everything we know - leaves around 11 o'clock with Mary Jo Kopechne in his car. You know, the car goes off a bridge, Dike Bridge, into a channel. And in the morning, Mary Jo Kopechne is in the car dead, and Teddy is out of the car alive. And all that we know is that Teddy did not call the police until, you know, mid-morning, around 10 a.m. or so, after this accident occurred, you know, somewhere around midnight or 1 a.m. And so he could have very easily gone to jail. He should have probably gone to jail, no doubt should have lost his Senate seat. But, you know, what he did by not calling the police has kind of allowed his political and legal operation to get into action to head off all of that, to co-opt the local law enforcement. And so he ended up getting off with a slap on the wrist, served no jail time and ended up getting re-elected in - a couple of years later.

DAVIES: Right. And he did plead guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and got a...

WARD: Right.

DAVIES: ...Suspended sentence. But there were just unanswered questions that lingered about the timing, about the route that was taken that...

WARD: Right.

DAVIES: You know, was there an illicit relationship between Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne that lingered long after the legal matter was resolved?

WARD: Yeah. I mean, this is the incident that has spawned a thousand theories. And I don't say conspiracy theories because we don't know, actually, what happened. So it's possible there was a conspiracy. There was, certainly, some level of conspiracy on the Kennedys part in terms of, you know, not giving a ton of information and sort of shielding Kennedy behind all these advisers. But yeah, we don't know ultimately what happened. There have been a lot of theories about his relationship with Mary Jo. And, you know, this is, again, going back to my early - my conversation with Anita Dunn. You know, she talked about how her parents always just hated - they were from a Democratic family. But they really hated Ted Kennedy because of this. And, certainly, if you're a Republican, this is an easy, you know, stick to hit Kennedy with. And he deserves it. You know, that's the thing.

DAVIES: Jon Ward is a senior political correspondent for Yahoo News. His new book is "Camelot's End: Kennedy Vs. Carter And The Fight That Broke The Democratic Party." We'll talk more after just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Yahoo's senior political correspondent Jon Ward. He's covered Washington politics for 20 years. And he has a new book about the battle between President Jimmy Carter and Senator Ted Kennedy in 1980. It's called "Camelot's End." So we have this situation where Jimmy Carter, known as a nice, decent man but not the most effective politician, is struggling against an energy crisis and all kinds of things - inflation, unemployment - late in his first term. And people are thinking, maybe Ted Kennedy will run against him. There's - comes a moment where the energy crisis was boiling over. There were, you know, violent incidents in gas lines, riots in - a riot in Levittown. And Carter was actually away at some meetings in Japan. This is an interesting course of events. What happens?

WARD: Yeah. He was on a trip abroad and was actually planning to stop in Hawaii on the way back with his wife, Rosalynn. They had, I think, four or five days - maybe three or four days planned because they had been going at a breakneck pace just traveling, doing events here in Washington. But they had been traveling a lot abroad that time of the year. What happened was their advisers basically said, you need to get back here now or else we could lose this presidency right now. But yeah, they were kind of planning to stay in Hawaii. And then they get called back to Washington. And he's planning to give this sort of regular speech. And there's a disagreement among his advisers. Some of them want him to give the speech. Others want him to scrap it and do something different. And, you know, one of them, his pollster, says, you know, this is a spiritual crisis. The American people need to hear something different. And so Carter goes with him.

DAVIES: That's Pat Caddell.

WARD: Pat Caddell, correct.

DAVIES: The other thing that's fascinating about this story is that he comes back. He schedules an energy speech because it's, clearly, a big energy problem, abruptly cancels it and then kind of disappears.

WARD: He disappears.

DAVIES: What was he doing?

WARD: He disappears. He goes up to Camp David. He doesn't tell, really, anybody. His advisers don't even find out until, I think, the next day. And so imagine if that were to happen today. The president just disappears, and we don't even actually know where he is. That's...

DAVIES: For days.

WARD: ...Just - yeah.


WARD: That's just unthinkable. And so that throws everybody for a loop. What happens is he ends up spending 10 days at Camp David. He holds a series of meetings, basically, a summit, and gets input from all kinds of leaders in different sectors of the country, political and otherwise. And then he comes back after 10 days, intending to give a speech. And this is what becomes known as the malaise speech. However...

DAVIES: Can I just interrupt there? I want to ask you - you spoke to Jimmy Carter. In this period when he comes back from Japan, did you talk to him or did others talk to you about what was going on in his mind, why he seemed so suddenly - I don't know - frozen, indecisive?

WARD: The best comment I've heard on this is from Bert Lance, who was his budget chief who had the problems in '76 but also was a close friend and adviser from Georgia. And Lance knows Carter well. He just basically said he thought he had panicked at that point. And he was overwhelmed - overwhelmed with exhaustion. And so that combination of panic and fatigue really led him to make some mistakes there. However, it's easy to second-guess because the speech, when he first gave it, was incredibly well-received. And his approval rating went up. And it wasn't actually the speech that caused him to lose support. It was actually the firing of the cabinet and, you know, forcing most of them to resign en masse that caused everybody to go, wait a minute. What are you doing here? And that was what caused the bottom to fall out, which has, since then, colored the way that we see the speech, which is really interesting.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, you know, let's hear just a little bit of that speech. This is, you know - what's interesting is that it was not a policy address. And at a time when, I guess, some people expected, you know, a firm leader to take the wheel and guide a clear way forward, he kind of said, we have an existential problem as a people. And he talked about it. Let's listen.


JIMMY CARTER: It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

DAVIES: And that's President Jimmy Carter speaking in 1979 amidst an energy crisis. So this is interesting. You got a leader. Rather than saying, I see the way out, and we're going to go forward together; the problem is the state of mind that we all share. And yet you say, initially, it came off well.

WARD: I don't think that we've had a president give a speech quite like that address ever since then in a couple of different ways. I don't think we've had a president be quite as blunt and honest about more existential matters, such as the spiritual state of our nation. And I also don't think we've had a president really ask the country to sacrifice in a way that Carter did in that speech since then. And so I think that's a speech that's ill-served by dismissing it as the malaise speech. I think it deserves a lot more study in terms of its themes and the moment it was in.

But yes, it was well-received at the moment because, you know, he had obviously surveyed a lot of people. He had talked to a lot of people. He was also pretty self-critical in the speech. He criticized himself. He took responsibility for his mistakes. The speech was also a bit of a mishmash because he did - the front end of it was about the spiritual crisis, and the second half of it was sort of a hodgepodge of policy proposals - so not the greatest speech in that sense. But it was well-received. And then the Cabinet crisis was what caused everybody to lose confidence in him.

DAVIES: Well, let's focus on that. So he does the speech. He talks about, you know, we as a nation need to rededicate ourselves to rethink our relationship with events. And then he fires every single Cabinet member. Why?

WARD: I haven't seen it reported or written about anywhere else. I was at the Carter Center at the Carter Library, and I came across a memo from Hamilton Jordan, his chief of staff. And Jordan basically recommended that he fire all these people to show strength. Jordan had actually been against - opposed to - him going to Camp David in the first place. He wanted him to give the standard speech. But once he decided to do that, Jordan decided, OK; we've got to do something dramatic in addition to the speech to show people that we mean business, to show people that we are strong.

And so there are many, many inputs into any decision a president makes. But Jordan was a key confidante, had a close relationship with Carter. And it was really his call, as far as I can tell from this memo, that Carter fire these people, fire the Cabinet. He allowed a couple to stay on but fired most of them, which I don't think has ever been reported before.

DAVIES: About why he did it, yeah.

WARD: I don't think the memo has ever been reported before, yeah.

DAVIES: So what you have is the speech that's impressive. And then kind of turning the government upside down makes him look like - what? - someone who's sort of scrambling, panicking.

WARD: Yeah, panicking. Exactly. It makes him look like he is sort of picking things off of a tree as fast as he can just to try - you know, to mix metaphors - to throw things at a wall and see what sticks and not really sure what course he wants to go on.

DAVIES: Jon Ward's new book is "Camelot's End: Kennedy Vs. Carter And The Fight That Broke The Democratic Party." After a break, he'll talk about the primary battle in 1980 and the convention drama that left Carter victorious but deeply wounded. Also, John Powers tells us about the new HBO movie "Brexit." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're talking with Yahoo News political correspondent Jon Ward about the 1980 Democratic presidential primary battle between President Jimmy Carter, beset by the Iran hostage crisis and domestic turmoil, and Senator Ted Kennedy, who had the prestige of his family name but also damage to his reputation from the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident. Jon Ward's book is called "Camelot's End."

So in 1979, Ted Kennedy, who has this, you know, terrible personal scandal, you know, just 10 years before, suddenly has a huge opportunity open to him, should he take it. What did the polls say about how Democrats felt about replacing President Carter with Ted Kennedy as their candidate in 1980?

WARD: The polls showed that they wanted Kennedy. And I will say that, according to Ted Kennedy, it was after the malaise speech that he really said, I'm going to lean towards running against Carter. He didn't officially, you know, make that decision until Labor Day. But this was June. And he tells the story of basically saying after that speech, like, this is not the kind of leadership that America needs, and I could provide that leadership. You know, I wouldn't blame the American people.

And so by the summer and early fall of 1979, polls show Kennedy beating Carter by 2-to-1 in the primary. And so we enter the fall of 1979 with pretty much a widespread conventional wisdom, expectation that Ted Kennedy's going to be the Democratic nominee. Carter has the lowest approval rating of, I think, any president up until then. I think George Bush surpassed him in that measure. But Carter, you know, is really the underdog going into the primary.

DAVIES: Right. His ratings were lower than Richard Nixon in Watergate, right?

WARD: Yeah. Can - how is that possible?

DAVIES: Right, right. So it looks like Kennedy has a wide-open path. And then it all goes completely wrong for him. There was the Iranian Revolution. And then they stormed the U.S. embassy and took 52 American hostages, which caused Americans to rally around the president, as tends to happen in an international crisis. So that helped his numbers. And then the Carter people really understood how to organize a primary campaign a lot better than Kennedy's, didn't they?

WARD: They did. Although, I would say I was really surprised by the fact that the hostage crisis helped Carter. I just - I think the way that we remember history, especially for somebody like me who hasn't lived through that period - the way we remember history or think about that time is that the hostage crisis hurt Carter. But it really did help him in the first couple months after it happened because it rallied Americans to the presidency. And it starved Kennedy of the ability to get into the news cycle because he couldn't criticize Carter on it. That would be one way to get into the news cycle that would hurt him politically. And he couldn't really agree with Carter on how he was doing it because that's not going to make news. So he was really stuck there on that.

And then when it came to organizing, Carter had just - you know, he had won in '76 because he understood the ways that the primaries were changing. And so you throw that in there. You throw in the fact that Kennedy's sort of northeast elite celebrity does not really play well with farmers. It doesn't help that, you know, Chappaquiddick is still lurking in the background, which the Kennedy people thought it'd been long enough. Maybe they deceived themselves into thinking that because the opportunity was so great. I think that's quite likely.

DAVIES: Right. So he started losing delegates when everyone thought he would win them. You know, as this campaign got underway - I mean, often, when politicians of the same party have their eye on a nomination, before they start shooting, they will get together and talk. Is there a way we can work this out? Did these guys do this? What did you hear from Jimmy Carter and from associates of both sides about how they felt about each other?

WARD: I mean, they did talk about it. They had a conversation. Over the summer, I think, just before Labor Day, when Kennedy made his decision, I think he - or maybe just after Labor Day, I think, he informed Carter. There was never a huge amount of negotiation on this. As you mentioned, they didn't really like each other very much. A lot of that was really just style. I think Carter looked at Kennedy as somebody who had been given everything in life. And we've mentioned, you know, how hard he had to work to get everything he got. So I think he really resented that and looked down on Kennedy for that.

I think Kennedy just saw Carter as sort of a backwoods nobody who was going to be gone, you know, in a couple of months. And he really had contempt for him as having not a lot of accomplishments and not a lot of pedigree. So they were just from alien worlds. I think that played a - worlds that were alien to each other. And I think that played a lot into why they couldn't understand each other.

DAVIES: Right. There is this little incident where you report that Jimmy Carter, I mean, the president and, you know, the devout Christian, is talking to some senators about how he views the campaign. What does he say?

WARD: Yeah. He says, I'm going to whip his ass, which people today, people then didn't really think of Carter as a person who swore. But his political people pushed that out there because they wanted people to know, like, that Carter was not afraid of Teddy Kennedy. And he wasn't. He - one of the really great stories in the book is about an incident in 1974 where Carter just really showed Kennedy up at a speech in Georgia. And he had never really been intimidated by Kennedy, which is really interesting.

DAVIES: All right. So summer of - August of 1980, Democratic Convention in Madison Square Garden, a chance for the party to unite, put all of this awful stuff behind them and unite around Jimmy Carter. And it doesn't exactly work out that way. Kennedy issues a statement saying, it's clear I can't win. He concedes, but he doesn't exactly do what Carter wants. He has a chance to speak. Carter gave him a primetime speaking slot. What does he do with his moment in the spotlight?

WARD: He gives sort of obligatory praise and support to Carter. But then he really gives a speech that's about his own campaign and about his own ideals. Kennedy really talks about maybe the more, you know, moral and idealistic aspects of his candidacy. He doesn't really talk a lot about policy. And he gives this speech, which is really known now as one of the great political speeches of the last several decades, at least. He uses the phrase, you know, to sail against the wind, which is a famous phrase from that campaign. And by the end of the speech, the whole convention hall is really, you know, in his - in the palm of his hand. Even, you know, Carter's advisers can feel the amount of appeal, the amount of emotion, the amount of momentum that the speech has created.

And there's like a 30-minute - what's known as a demonstration. I don't know if we really even have those anymore. But those were things they used to do where they would cheer and dance and applaud. And so they did that for 30 minutes after that speech. And so after that speech, there was a vote on these policy proposals. And the Carter operation just had to basically concede to Kennedy on two of the three.

DAVIES: Yeah - the Kennedy magic at work in that speech.

WARD: It was a huge embarrassment for Carter to agree to these proposals.

DAVIES: Right. The speech - I mean, it was really the Kennedy magic again kind of appearing.

WARD: Yeah.

DAVIES: Let's listen just to the end of the speech. This is Kennedy where he's kind of talking about his campaign.


TED KENNEDY: ...And not to yield. For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on. The cause endures. The hope still lives. And the dream shall never die.

DAVIES: Not exactly, we have a nominee who will transform America. It's, there's a dream ahead of us. So what happens the following night is in some ways worse for Jimmy Carter. I mean, he gives the acceptance speech. And it's a perfectly serviceable speech. And eventually, Ted Kennedy makes his way to the stage.

WARD: (Laughter).

DAVIES: What does Carter want? I remember this vividly. What does...

WARD: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...Carter want? What actually happens?

WARD: This is the story that drew me to this book in the first place. This is what got me interested. I just thought, how could this have possibly happened? And the backstory is fascinating, too. But basically, Carter wants to get a picture with Kennedy of the two of them with their hands raised together above their heads. That's sort of the symbol of unity. Why is that so important to him? Who knows? You know, in these moments, why do things take on such significant importance? But...

DAVIES: It's the classic...

WARD: ...That's what he wanted.

DAVIES: It's the classic convention-ending, we're all marching forward together photo. And he needed Kennedy's charisma on his side.

WARD: Yeah. I mean, it's a sort of silly thing in some respects, but because of the tradition, it took on this outsized importance. And so Kennedy takes 20-plus minutes to get there. And I'll leave the details of why that happened to the book. But that's an interesting story all in of itself. But it takes 20 minutes to get there. The cheering and singing dies down after probably 10 minutes. And so the Carter people are just calling up everybody they can think of. (Laughter). They're calling up obscure labor secretaries, obscure state officials, to basically just try to keep people engaged and clapping. They can't get the balloons to fall. Everything is kind of going sideways.

So Kennedy shows up. Finally, the hall explodes. And he comes up on stage, and he shakes hands with Carter, but conspicuously, he avoids raising the hands together. He and Carter end up shaking hands - again, I went to Vanderbilt to watch this footage - but the two of them shake hands three, or four or five times, but Kennedy won't give him the picture that he wants. And so the way it was described to me they got me interested in it - basically, Carter is chasing (laughter) Kennedy around the stage. This is after he's just accepted the nomination. It's the pinnacle of his success in the primary. He's won. But after this humiliation on national television, he's kind of lost. It's just bizarre.

DAVIES: Jon Ward is a senior political correspondent for Yahoo News. His new book is, "Camelot's End: Kennedy Vs. Carter And The Fight That Broke The Democratic Party." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Yahoo senior political correspondent Jon Ward. He's covered Washington politics for 20 years. His new book about the battle between President Jimmy Carter and Senator Ted Kennedy in 1980 is called "Camelot's End."

So this convention ends with this kind of Kennedy playing the star on the stage of the convention, Carter not getting the real endorsement from the senator that he wanted, the real kind of embrace, and Ronald Reagan wins the election, beats Carter. You say that this is kind of a turning point in American political history. Why?

WARD: So Democrats had been the dominant party since FDR and the New Deal for much of the 20th century. But once the civil rights movement kicked off, they began to quickly lose the South. At the same time, you know, political party bosses in the big Midwestern Rust Belt cities were losing power. And so they began to lose the ability to corral white ethnic voters towards the Democrats. And civil rights, quite frankly, also really angered a lot of the white ethnic voters in that part of the country.

And so, you know, Jimmy Carter was a president who was able, because he was from Georgia, to appeal to the South. And he got a lot of Southern states back in his corner in '76. But the Democrats had a problem because they're in major constituencies for a long time - where the South and the Midwest and Rust Belt, and they were losing both of them. And so what happened in 1980 is that Reagan was able to, you know, defeat Carter in much of the South, as had been happening up until Carter. But he was able to take that away from Carter, the Southerner, and get much of the Midwest.

And so that was sort of the final shattering of that coalition, which was really the FDR coalition. You know, Kennedy had been trying to run on sort of FDR-type policies, the old-style liberalism, you know, trying to be a populist. But the Midwest, the Rust Belt, didn't really - you know, didn't really buy it from him. And so for the next 12 years, Republicans kept the White House until Bill Clinton, a Southerner, came along and won back some Southern states.

DAVIES: 1980 was certainly a turning point in the lives of these two men, Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy. Just remind us a bit of the courses that their lives took after.

WARD: Both of them have really interesting stories after this episode. It was such a really bad period for them, for both of them. A really tough defeat for Kennedy in the primary, for Carter in the general. And so I think for Carter, you know, he goes into a post-presidency at a pretty young age, and he's the president who has redefined what we know as the post-presidency. He starts the Carter Center. He becomes a philanthropist, a human rights activist, oversees elections all over the world, oversees, you know, hostage negotiations. Mediates between conflicts in different countries, and he eradicates disease in places like Africa.

And I will say in doing this project, my respect for Jimmy Carter has really gone through the roof. I mean, he's somebody who has a deep and devout faith, and he lives it. And, you know, he didn't have a successful presidency, but you really can't fault the guy's character. He has got character flaws, like we all do, and probably not the most fun (laughter) guy to have a beer with, but you can't really knock him for his integrity.

DAVIES: And Ted Kennedy stayed in the Senate and accomplished a lot.

WARD: Yeah. And this is a little more complicated because there was a famous piece written in GQ in 1991 by Michael Kelly, who was a famous journalist who ended up being killed in the Iraq War. And it was called "Teddy Kennedy On The Rocks." And it really detailed a lot of bad misbehavior, most of it involving women, with Teddy Kennedy and Chris Dodd, who was a senator from Connecticut at the time. And he was Teddy's, you know, good friend and rabble-rousing companion. You have the incident in Florida, where Teddy's nephew is accused of rape. And Teddy's there. So it's not as if Teddy goes from sort of playboy to lion of the Senate all at once. But he meets Vicki Kennedy in the early '90s. And that really stabilizes his personal life.

All this time, though, he is learning how to be a good senator. I really think it's interesting that the good - the thing that makes Teddy a good senator is the thing that made him less interesting than his brothers. Both his brothers were more dynamic and charismatic and able to succeed at the presidential level. Teddy was probably not as - quite as sharp and dynamic. That made him more of a hard worker when it came to understanding policy and really deciding to grind away three yards and a cloud of dust at getting to a bargain, to getting to an accomplished piece of legislation. And that's really - both bipartisanship and the persistence are the things that made him a really great senator. But there was never really a warming of their relationship.

That said, when I asked Carter about Kennedy, you know, he gave a very nice compliment to him. And it's the last line of the book. You know, I asked Carter, you know, do you think that Teddy achieved redemption? And Carter said, I don't think he needed redemption. I think he was one of the finest senators who ever lived. And so I think after Kennedy died, after he'd had time to reflect, I think Carter has come to a place of maybe less resentful feelings towards Teddy Kennedy.

DAVIES: John Ward, thanks so much for speaking with us.

WARD: It was a privilege. Thank you.

DAVIES: John Ward is senior political correspondent for Yahoo News. His new book is "Camelot's End: Kennedy Vs. Carter And The Fight That Broke The Democratic Party." Coming up, John Powers tells us about the new HBO TV movie "Brexit." This is FRESH AIR.


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