The Washington Post headline read, “Barack Obama, Camelot’s New Knight/ The Shining Armor of JFK’s Legacy.”
Presiding over the knighting ceremony was the last of the original knights of Camelot, Teddy Kennedy. It was a joyful occasion with a crowd of seven thousand cheering every word, with Kennedy clapping to music, with Kennedy embracing his new knight of the roundtable.
But if Obama looked upon Teddy as his Sir Lancelot the other day, then Jimmy Carter might well have regarded him as his Sir Mordred twenty-eight years ago. Mordred, the evil knight of the roundtable, was known as the destroyer of the kingdom.
The scene was the Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden on August 14, 1980. Carter had just finished his acceptance speech. As the band played “Happy Days Are Here Again” and the delegates cheered, Carter and his vice-president, Walter Mondale, bounded about the stage, their hands together, their arms outstretched like two triumphant prize fighters. The podium began to fill with the powers of the Democratic Party, governors and members of the Congress, all waving, smiling, winking and clapping. That final convention photograph had become mandatory - the televised symbol of party unity, with the victor and his vanquished opponents on the podium in happy harmony. But on August 14th, the vanquished, Teddy Kennedy, was missing from the picture.
It had been a bitter campaign. Kennedy never got his off the ground. My interview with him - the “Why do you want to be president?” interview - on November 4, 1979 was not helpful. On that very same Sunday, a mob in Teheran surrounded the US Embassy, demanding that the United States return the ailing shah to Iran. Carter broke off campaigning and Kennedy stumbled again by denouncing the shah as a thief who had stolen “umpteen billion dollars” from Iran.
By June 3, 1980, when the last Democratic primary was held in West Virginia, Carter had an insurmountable lead. He had pulled 51 percent of the primary votes with Kennedy at 37 percent. Before the convention even opened, Carter had 315 votes more than he needed for the nomination. But Kennedy refused to withdraw. Not until he lost trying to break the rule that bound the delegates to vote on the first ballot for their candidate did Kennedy give in.
Kennedy did finally arrive at Madison Square Garden. He gave Carter a perfunctory handshake and then seemed to turn his back on the President, skirting around the edges of the podium as party officials tried to arrange a victory photograph. Jules Witcover and Jack Germond, in Blue Smoke and Mirrors, quote a Carter intimate as saying the President “looked like a puppy dog” trotting after Kennedy. They also quote party chairman, Robert Strauss, after a reporter told him the scene “looked like hell,” as saying “it looked worse than hell.”
Carter himself never recovered. He carried five states and the District of Columbia. In his memoir, Keeping Faith, he wrote that the news stories about the podium scene “emphasized his [Kennedy’s] lack of enthusiasm as an indication that the spilt in our ranks had not healed. This accurate impression was quite damaging to our campaign, and was to linger for a long time.”
Maybe not quite the destroyer of Carter’s kingdom but close.