Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight That Broke the Democratic Party by Jon Ward
A Review by Pam Munter
Even if you’re not a political junkie, you can’t help but wonder how we got here. We’re a nation divided by persistent polemics, each side advocating different versions of reality. The election of 2016 was the obvious catalyst for our country’s overwrought political climate and pundits are still wondering how it all happened.
One hypothesis can be found in Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight That Broke the Democratic Party by Jon Ward (Hachette, 2019). While the parallels between 1980 and 2016 are sketchily drawn, the reader can easily make the connection.
Ward’s thesis is that the political and personal animosity between Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter split the Democratic party, a schism that allowed Ronald Reagan and his cronies to rise to the seats of power for two presidential terms. Carter was among the few presidents denied a second term, which he blamed on Kennedy’s defiant challenge right up to election day. It doesn’t take much to hear an echo from this rivalry in 2016’s Democratic primaries, pitting Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton.
More than detailing the specific political machinations, Ward tells a story that “helps us understand two men who played a major role in American politics for roughly half a century…both misunderstood and underestimated.” He begins by contrasting Kennedy’s birth into an elite family with Carter’s rural Georgian roots. Rather than portray them in stereotypical ways, Ward tells us that Carter was really an urbane and well-educated man and Kennedy suffered as the runt of the large litter, sometimes asked to sleep in the bathtub when company came. Kennedy always came up short when compared to his brothers.
The personal stories and backgrounds compliment the familiar political stories and make this a fascinating saga of a bygone era. “But,” he underscores, “these two men had differences that at the bottom of it were intensely personal. Their mutual dislike bordered on loathing…They might as well have been raised on different planets.”
Each had ghosts in the background. Kennedy’s are better known—expelled from Harvard for cheating, the drinking and womanizing and, of course, the tragedy of Chappaquiddick. The familiarity with Kennedy’s flaws makes Carter’s scabs more intriguing: that he played both sides of the segregation issue to get elected Governor in Georgia, that he was isolated and unpopular at Annapolis, and his habitual tendencies toward pettiness with people who displeased him.
During Carter’s presidency, the country was beset by runaway inflation and the seemingly endless hostage crisis in Iran, brought on by Carter’s invitation to the deposed Shah to receive medical treatment in the US. His administration was rife with scandals, a result of his inexperience outside Georgia politics. Ward says, his advisers were “hard-drinking, fornicating, pot-smokers,” in diametric contrast to the born-again President. Many voters considered Carter to be a phony.
When it came time to declare for a second term in 1980, Carter was still wrestling with issues at home and in Iran. He gave an ill-conceived evangelical speech about Americans being too pessimistic, selfish and materialistic, the famous “malaise” speech. Kennedy had been a reluctant candidate, already a dark horse, due to the past scandals. Those around him smelled the Camelot roses after hearing Carter speak and encouraged Kennedy to run. His ambivalence was on display in the disastrous Roger Mudd interview on CBS, watched by millions. When asked why he wanted to be President, he couldn’t give a definitive answer and spent most of the interview sounding like a schoolboy who forgot to study for the exam. Kennedy “looked like a cornered animal,” Ward reports, and was his own worst enemy.
In spite of this, Kennedy ramped up his criticisms of Carter, blaming him for the energy crisis that resulted in long lines at the gas station, for the hostage crisis, and for the rampant inflation. On a personal level, he had met with Carter several times, seeking his support for Kennedy’s number one issue, national health care, but Carter refused to help.
The night Carter was nominated, Kennedy gave a speech that brought the delegates to their feet for nearly a half-hour. Carter was not as warmly received. The last night, Carter and his family were onstage to perfunctory applause but when Kennedy joined them, the crowd erupted once again in manic cheers. Carter tried to pull Kennedy close, joining their hands in the traditional unification gesture. Kennedy would not allow it (some speculate he had been drinking). As the cheering died down, he abruptly left the convention center. Carter and his family remained standing on the stage, an awkward moment critical to his defeat, says Ward. Kennedy, he notes, “had torn the Democratic Party in two, leaving the sitting President badly wounded and vulnerable to his Republican challenger.”
The night of Carter’s defeat, Kennedy put in a congratulatory call to President Ronald Reagan. The two spoke for ten minutes.
We know what happened to both men afterwards. Kennedy continued as a major mover-and-shaker in the Senate. His personal life continued to unravel until his second marriage seemed to stabilize him. Carter continued to surprise, becoming a broker in search of peace through his nonprofit Carter Center. He is widely seen as more effective and likeable than he was during his presidency.
The reader is left to speculate about the parallels with the 2016 election. Bernie and Hillary were never friends but didn’t seem to be the sniping combatants we read about in this book. Rather, it was likely their teams and their constituents that created the breach that allowed Donald Trump his victory. We are left to wonder if perhaps human frailties more than social and political issues motivate the voter. Even those without a hunger for political stories will find this book engaging, if only because of the perceptive treatment of each man and his motivations. Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” Ward tells us all politics is personal, too. The moral seems to be that when anger and resentment drive the political train, there will be an inevitable wreck ahead.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986) and is a contributor to many others. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in more than 100 publications. Her play Life Without was produced by S2S2S, and nominated four times by the Desert Theatre League, including the Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing and Outstanding Play (staged reading). She’s a Pushcart nominee and has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be, was published by Adelaide Books in 2018.