Déjà vu
A delegate cheering at the 1980 Democratic National Convention.

Déjà vu

With this year’s Democratic presidential primary, it feels like history is fighting like hell to repeat itself

LONDONDERRY — In the summer of 1980, I was a young television news intern standing on the floor of the Democratic National Convention when an emotional Senator Ted Kennedy formally conceded the nomination to President Jimmy Carter.

I was back on the convention floor two days later when President Carter accepted the nomination, and although the delegates were dutifully cheering for him, it was clear that many had not fully embraced him as their nominee, and his candidacy felt doomed.

Now, 36 years later, it feels like history is fighting like hell to repeat itself.

* * *

Let me take you back to that time. Senator Kennedy had begun his quest for the nomination very much as an insurgent, and he was pitted against President Carter, who was the establishment pick for a second term and the odds-on favorite.

The Kennedy campaign started out slow but ignited passion among young people throughout the nation and brought droves of new voters into the electoral process.

Kennedy's campaign built steam through the primaries and took advantage of a weakened Jimmy Carter, but he never quite had enough delegates to clinch the nomination.

When Kennedy reached the convention, he launched a bitter backstage fight to force the release of committed delegates, but he lost that battle, too, and he was left to surrender.

The animosity within the hall was palpable, and in spite of Kennedy's efforts, supporters simply wouldn't accept the legitimacy of his loss.

President Jimmy Carter limped out of the Democratic National Convention as the nominee, but never regained his footing.

The Republicans nominated Ronald Reagan that year. Reagan was an outsider who was best known as a charismatic television and movie star, and who ran his first national campaign around the slogan “Let's Make America Great Again.”

President Carter tried to regain momentum against Reagan's argument of tough-times-now-better-times-ahead, but the national press kept up an incessant drumbeat of negative reporting that fed right into the Reagan campaign narrative. Ongoing news events - including the Iranian hostage crisis and high inflation - stayed front and center throughout the campaign.

Every delegate at the Democratic National Convention had been fully aware of those challenges when they nominated Carter, but Democrats loyal to him inexplicably hoped those obvious problems would somehow just go away.

Ronald Reagan, the movie star and unconventional candidate who lacked national political experience, easily won the November election. The Democratic Party was stunned by the defeat and instituted safeguards to prevent a recurrence.

Among those safeguards was the introduction of superdelegates, defined as party elders who could shift their votes at the last minute to better reflect the will of the electorate and inoculate the Democratic Party against another embarrassing loss.

The rest, as they say, is history.

* * *

For me, that history is still very much alive. I remember the Kennedy concession speech well. It was late in the evening, and I had been released from my responsibilities as an intern with WKBW-TV because our video sends had been finished for the night. I was then free to wander the convention hall with an all-access front-of-house television pass.

That's how I came to be on the convention floor when Kennedy gave his rousing speech. To be there, in that magical moment, felt like the completion of an important personal journey.

I had first covered the Kennedy campaign as a photographer in New Hampshire during that state's primary. Kennedy seemed to have been drawn into the campaign almost against his will. He was a Kennedy, after all, and a presidential campaign seemed inevitable.

For years he had resisted, almost certainly because of the deaths of his two brothers and probably because he didn't want to relive the unpleasantness of his Chappaquiddick scandal. As I watched his campaign unfold in New Hampshire, I wondered if he was simply running to counter the inevitable tug of his family name. I wanted to see and feel a piece of the Kennedy mystique, but there was none to be found.

As the campaign moved on from New Hampshire, Kennedy gained a following, and by the time I saw him at the Democratic National Convention, he was firing on all cylinders. His concession speech would define the times, and inspire a generation.

And it would, for one brief moment, allow Ted Kennedy to shine through the shadow of his family's past.

* * *

The speech he gave that evening would be one of the best of his career, and it has often been credited as one of the top political speeches of the period.

Every few years, I return to the transcript and remember that hot August night in 1980. I read the words and hear the cadence of the Kennedy voice, and I know his voice is a part of my own.

Much has changed over the past 36 years, but much remains the same. Kennedy closed the speech by yielding to President Carter and saying: “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.”

* * *

Take a quick moment and read a few excerpts of Kennedy's famous “The Dream Shall Never Die” speech. Imagine these words in the voice of Ted Kennedy with his classic Massachusetts accent and Kennedy cadence, and then consider where we have traveled, and where our nation now stands in the path of modern history:

• “To all those overburdened by an unfair tax structure, let us provide new hope for real tax reform. Instead of shutting down classrooms, let us shut off tax shelters. Instead of cutting out school lunches, let us cut off tax subsidies for expensive business lunches that are nothing more than food stamps for the rich.”

• “We cannot have a fair prosperity in isolation from a fair society. So I will continue to stand for a national health insurance. We must - we must not surrender. We must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real controls over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family's health shall never depend on the size of a family's wealth.”

• “As Democrats, we recognize that each generation of Americans has a rendezvous with a different reality. The answers of one generation become the questions of the next generation.

“But there is a guiding star in the American firmament. It is as old as the revolutionary belief that all people are created equal, and as clear as the contemporary condition of Liberty City and the South Bronx.

“Again and again, Democratic leaders have followed that star and they have given new meaning to the old values of liberty and justice for all.”

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