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Renominated for 1980, Pres. Carter Says, “We’ve Been Tested Under Fire”

By:  D. Jason Berggren

Note: D. Jason Berggren is an associate professor of political science at Georgia Southwestern State University. This is the eighth article in the Carter 1980 look-back series.

On August 14, 1980, President Jimmy Carter formally accepted the Democratic nomination for president. Before the party gathering in New York’s Madison Square Garden, he said, “Fellow Democrats, fellow citizens: I thank you for the nomination you’ve offered me, and I especially thank you for choosing as my running mate the best partner any President ever had, Fritz Mondale. With gratitude and with determination I accept your nomination.”

For the moment, it was Carter’s night and Carter’s party. He bested Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy to become the party’s standard bearer once more. In his 2010 commentary to his original diary entry for that date, Carter wrote, “I was happy and relieved to have the time-consuming Democratic primary behind me and to emerge with a victory.”

In his acceptance remarks, Carter pledged to the convention, “Fritz and I will mount a campaign that defines the real issues, a campaign that responds to the intelligence of the American people, a campaign that talks sense. And we’re going to beat the Republicans in November.”

A few locals, including John and Betty Pope and David and Harriett Peak, went to New York to assist with convention events. In her article for August 20, “Democratic Convention, A Memorable Experience”, Leila Barrett described some of their activities.

To win the party nomination, Carter needed the votes from a majority of the 3,331 convention delegates. During the primaries, this meant the nomination threshold was 1,666 delegates. In the roll call vote of states and territories, Carter earned more than 2,100 votes, or almost 64 percent of the delegate total. As in 1976, the South proved to be vital.

In the delegate vote, the President swept his native region, winning each of the eleven states that constituted the 1861 Confederacy. Of the 701 convention delegates from the South, Carter claimed 608 of them, or almost 87 percent. In fact, he won each delegate vote cast that night from Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

Senator Kennedy received just 84 delegate votes, or 12 percent. The remainder were cast either for non-candidates (e.g., Representative Kent Hance of Texas or Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas) or were no votes.

That night, Carter also took Oklahoma, all the traditional Border States, like Kentucky and West Virginia, and he won the District of Columbia.

In the Midwest, he won the overall delegate votes from the major states in the region, including Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. His only losses were in North and South Dakota.

In the West, he won most of the states, too. The exceptions were losing California and tying in New Mexico.

In the Northeast, Carter narrowly succeeded in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and tied in Maine. He lost the rest to Kennedy.

Among the territories, Carter carried the delegate votes from Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam.

For his part, Senator Kennedy finished with just under 35 percent of the Democratic delegates. He won majority support from only ten state delegations, most notably California and New York.

The August 14 headline for the Americus Times-Recorder was, “Carter Launches Fall Campaign.”

But this outcome was largely expected. It was really a formality. For his August 13 diary entry, he wrote, “In the evening we had the vote on nomination, and I won without any problem. I was pleased that Texas put me over the top.”

The time was 12:05 a.m., the morning of August 14, and, according to an Associated Press article, “Madison Square Garden became a kettledrum of noise.”

For vice president, Walter Mondale was easily renominated by receiving approximately 73 percent of the delegate votes.

  1. Frank Myers, an attorney from Americus and an alternate Carter delegate, told the Americus Times-Recorder that when Carter won, “Everyone just went wild and the hall just absolutely exploded with enthusiasm. It was a great scene. Green helium-filled balloons floated in the air. It was a wonderful celebration.”

Myers was interviewed by staff writer Leila Barrett who included his words in her Aug. 14 article, “When Carter was Renominated, Pandemonium Reigned”.

The real party drama occurred not the night of August 13, but August 11 – the first day of the convention. The issue involved the rule binding delegates to their pledged candidate. The Kennedy campaign wanted the rule suspended and free delegates to vote their conscience. In this scenario, Senator Kennedy believed he could wrestle the nomination from Carter. Not surprisingly, the Carter campaign wanted the rule enforced and the will of the voters upheld.

Despite his best efforts, the convention soundly rejected Kennedy’s ploy. More than 58 percent of the delegates voted against the proposed change. Carter characterized the result as “better than we had anticipated”.

Of Georgia’s 63 delegates, only Julian Bond, a civil rights leader and state senator, backed the rule change.

With that, the Kennedy challenge was over. He subsequently announced, “While I’m deeply gratified by the support I received on the rules fight tonight but not quite as gratified as President Carter.” It was an “impressive victory” for his side. He then declared that he was a “realist” and recognized the significance of the vote. “I’ve called President Carter and congratulated him. The effort on the nomination is over.”

The next day’s headline for the Americus Times-Recorder read, “After Convention Floor Battle Won, Carter Wooing Ted’s Support”. As a concession to Kennedy and his supporters, the President was content with having a more liberal party platform. A Kennedy endorsement hinged on significant platform concessions on the economy, levels of government spending, jobs, and social issues like abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment. 

The Americus Times-Recorder seemed delighted by the convention rebuff of Senator Kennedy’s attempt to change the rules. In its Aug. 12 editorial, “Kennedy Plan Beaten”, the paper appeared to praise President Carter’s leadership in pulling the Democratic Party in more rightward direction to the frustration of the political left. Perhaps, that would be part of his legacy.

“Jimmy Carter seldom is involved in any endeavor without leaving his mark on the proceedings. Under his leadership the Democratic Party is more conservative than it has been in years. In fact, this is probably the reason he has suffered so much at the hands of the liberal wing of his party during this year’s nomination struggle; i.e. Kennedy.”

This defeat of the “Kennedy-ites”, the editorial continued, may yet signal a new direction for the Democratic Party. “Many Southern Democrats may indeed find themselves with a party more attuned to their brand of politics than any time in decades.” If so, the emerging Republican majority could be forestalled for “a long time”.

The Americus Times-Recorder pictured one scenario. However, August 12, day two of the Democratic convention belonged to Senator Kennedy and his delegates. That evening he gave an approximately thirty-minute speech, known to history as “The Dream Shall Never Die” speech. Madison Square Garden rocked with “We want Ted!” It was a sea of Kennedy blue and white signs.

Although he congratulated President Carter on his present victory and asserted that the party would unify around him to win in November, there was no endorsement at that time. Kennedy’s remarks were about tomorrow and beyond November 1980. He presented an image of the Democratic Party to come.

“And someday, long after this convention, long after the signs come down, and the crowds stop cheering, and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our campaign that we kept the faith. May it be said of our Party in 1980 that we found our faith again.”

For Kennedy, the Carter presidency was but a brief detour for liberalism forward march. He would not become president, but he was perhaps its most ardent ideological defender in the U.S. Senate for the next three decades until his death in 2009.

His 1980 speech ended on a rousing note: “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.”

It was in this speech that Kennedy finally answered the question Roger Mudd, a CBS News correspondent, first posed to him back in November 1979, “Why do you want to be president?” His answer was clumsy, unfocused, and passionless. He stumbled out of the campaign gate and never fully recovered down the primary stretch.

In his diary entry for August 12, Carter simply wrote, “In the evening Kennedy made a stirring and emotional speech.”

Carter’s big night was August 14, the last night of the convention. He needed a solid acceptance speech and needed to bring the party together. His presidential job approval that week, according to the Gallup Organization, was at a dismal 32 percent. The month before in the July 11-14 survey he was at 33 percent. Among Democrats, Carter stood at 48 percent in both July and August.

Carter spoke that night for approximately 50 minutes. He admitted some of the challenges of being president and that he had learned some tough lessons. He defended his record and made the case for a second term. He said, “I’m wiser tonight than I was four years ago.”

“I don’t claim perfection for the Democratic Party. I don’t claim that every decision that we made has been right or popular; certainly, they’ve not all been easy. But I will say this: We’ve been tested under fire. We’ve neither ducked nor hidden, and we’ve tackled the great central issues of our time, the historic challenges of peace and energy, which have been ignored for years. We’ve made tough decisions, and we’ve taken the heat for them. We’ve made mistakes, and we’ve learned from them. But we have built the foundation now for a better future.”

To bring the party together, Carter reached out to Kennedy and his supporters. He knew full well that he could not win without them. “I’d like to say a personal word to Senator Kennedy. Ted, you’re a tough competitor and a superb campaigner, and I can attest to that. Your speech before this convention was a magnificent statement of what the Democratic Party is and what it means to the people of this country and why a Democratic victory is so important this year. I reach out to you tonight, and I reach out to all those who supported you in your valiant and passionate campaign. Ted, your party needs and I need you. And I need your idealism and your dedication working for us.” Whatever hope Carter had in the moment, quickly faded.

After the speech, various party officials joined Carter and Vice President Mondale on stage as a demonstration of party unity. Senator Kennedy soon arrived and made his way to Carter. The two rivals briefly shook hands, but that was about it. There were no significant gestures of unity. It was an embarrassing snub. Carter even thought the Senator had been drinking.

In his 2009 memoir, True Compass, Kennedy remembered the moment and the lingering tensions. “I shook the president’s hand, and then Mrs. Carter’s hand. I did not elevate his hand, and he made no effort to elevate mine. But then the press began to point out that I had not elevated Jimmy’s hand, and that became a sore spot that has lasted, I suppose, to this day.”

After the convention, Carter headed to Camp David for rest and relaxation before hitting the rigorous campaign trail. He also did some fishing in Pennsylvania that weekend.

By the time Carter returned to Washington, polls showed he received a much-needed boost in public support. For example, a postconvention Gallup poll (Aug. 15-17) had Carter within one point of Reagan, 39 – 38. John Anderson, the independent candidate, held firm at 14 percent. It was a significant swing in support compared to the poll at the beginning of August (1-3) that had Reagan leading 45 – 31 percent.

Carter’s convention bounce conceivably could have been larger had it not been for an issue involving Billy Carter. Known as “Billygate”, the President’s brother was under investigation for his ties to Libya. It was a leading news story for weeks during the summer of 1980, and it was a major embarrassment for the President.

There was serious concern that, as described in news reports, the “radical Arab government” led by Muammar Qaddafi was using Billy for propaganda purposes and to lobby for better treatment from the Carter administration. The United States considered Libya a state-sponsor of international terrorism and was viewed as one of the most anti-Israel countries in the region.

Billy traveled to the country, once in 1978 and then again in 1979, and had received money and gifts. Eventually, he testified before a nine-member Senate subcommittee as to the nature of his relationship with the North African country.

For its part, several frontpage stories were printed by the Americus Times-Recorder, such as “Billy Declares as Foreign Agent” (July 15), “President Suggested Disclosure” (July 18), “Of Billy Carter-Libyan Affair, Panel Considers Investigation” (July 22), “Billy Used as Go-between” (July 23), “Way Cleared to Investigate Billy’s Ties With Libyan Gov’t” (July 24), “Carter Promises Full Cooperation in Hearings” (July 25), and “President Ready to Answer Libya Case” (July 30). 

Weeks earlier, the Republicans met in Detroit, Michigan, July 14-17, for their national convention. As it was underway, a poll from the Associated Press / NBC News showed Reagan ahead, 41 – 27 percent over Carter, with Anderson at 18 percent.

Unlike four years earlier, the 1980 Republican gathering was unified and mostly undramatic. Governor Reagan, the runner-up candidate in 1976 who came close to being nominated, was the clear, undisputed choice in 1980. It was his party now and it was increasingly conservative. The “Reagan Revolution” had arrived, as the party platform no longer endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) but endorsed a constitutional amendment to protect the unborn.

In the delegate vote, Reagan obtained 97 percent. The remaining votes were scattered primarily between John Anderson and George Bush.

The only real uncertainty was Reagan’s choice for vice president. There was talk of a dream ticket of Reagan and former president Gerald Ford. Perhaps, it could be a sort of co-presidency where the two leaders shared executive power. That seemed unattainable and rather outlandish.

Reagan moved on and picked Bush. The July 17 frontpage headline for the Americus Times-Recorder was “Reagan Taps Bush for Ticket”.

Bush was the standby choice. After all, he was Reagan’s strongest opponent in the primaries who won some key primaries in the Northeast and Midwest.

As a former member of Congress and having served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, Bush was unquestionably well-qualified. Critically, he possessed a level of foreign policy and national security experience that Reagan did not. Bush was the Washington insider as Reagan was the Washington outsider.

As a Massachusetts native and a Texas resident, Bush provided the ticket regional balance. Ideologically, he was perceived as coming from the more moderate wing of the party and that complimented the conservative wing led by Reagan. He was certainly acceptable to Republicans loyal to Gerald Ford.

Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt, a friend of Reagan’s and his onetime national campaign chair, was considered. So was former rival Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee. Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, Representatives Jack Kemp of New York and Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, Ford cabinet secretaries William Simon and Donald Rumsfeld also made the short list.

With 93 percent of the delegate vote, the convention overwhelmingly approved of Reagan’s vice-presidential selection. A few delegates cast protest votes against Bush and voted for archconservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms.

In his acceptance remarks on the convention’s final day, Reagan promised strong leadership, enhanced military strength, a robust economy, smaller government, and a renewal of the American spirit. His campaign was a “crusade” to bring the country back to a place where it was clear for all to see that it was an “island of freedom” blessed by “Divine Providence”.

Of the three major candidates, Anderson was the last to select a vice-presidential running mate. On August 25, the Illinois Republican chose former Wisconsin governor Patrick Lucey. Lucey, a Democrat who backed Kennedy in the primaries, served six years as Wisconsin’s governor (1971-1977) then was nominated by President Carter to be the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.

The selection of Lucey was an obvious gesture to attract Democrats who preferred Kennedy in the primaries and were still unsure of Carter.

Governor Lucey also provided religious balance to the bipartisan ticket. Anderson was an evangelical Protestant and Lucey was a Roman Catholic.

The next day, “Anderson Chooses Disenchanted Demo as Running Mate” was the frontpage headline for the Americus Times-Recorder.

The 1980 fall campaign was ready to begin. Labor Day, the traditional kickoff for the general election, was just around the corner. Carter, Reagan, and Anderson looked forward to the presidential debates. The format and who would be included remained unclear. President Carter pressed for a series of one-on-one debates with Reagan. Such an event between the two most likely to win would clarify “the two paths of the future”.