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Nation: The President and the Phantom

5 minute read

Politeness in Boston, coy courtship in Chicago

There they were, only a seat apart on the dais: the President and the Senator who would be President. Jimmy Carter rose to praise the Senator’s late brother for having “summoned our nation out of complacency.” Then he listened attentively as the Senator described his brother’s Administration as “years of grace, trust and hope,” and vowed: “The journey never ends, the dream shall never die.” The scene at the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston was symbolic of Jimmy Carter’s week; nearly everywhere he went the shadow of the phantom Ted Kennedy candidacy seemed to follow.

Generally, the President more than held his own in the skirmishing. As the slow counting finally ended in Florida’s complicated caucus balloting to select delegates to a virtually meaningless Democratic convention, it was clear that Carter had decisively turned back the challenge of Kennedy’s volunteer supporters. Though the victory was only psychological in significance, Carter’s supporters went ahead by nearly 2 to 1 over the Kennedy slate. Carter even took the Miami area, 131 to 57. Yet Kennedy had shown spotty strength: he beat Carter in Tampa, Orlando, Sarasota and Fort Lauderdale.

Each side found satisfaction in the results. The meaning, as Presidential Press Secretary Jody Powell saw it: “Anyone who wishes to challenge the President had better be prepared for a long, tough fight every step of the way.” Added a Carter strategist: “This showed we’re in good shape organizationally.” But Sergio Ben-dixen, executive director of the Florida draft-Kennedy committee, saw a different significance: “We proved we have strength. But it’s very tough to fight the incumbent without a real candidate. With him in it, we would have swept Florida.”

Nationwide opinion polls released last week showed that Carter is gaining among Democrats in trial heats against Kennedy. From a dismal 53%-to-16% deficit in July, the New York Times-CBS poll now places the President at 45% to 25% behind the Senator. Carter’s approval rating in an Associated Press-NBC survey has risen to 24%, a climb of five points from a month ago. Better yet for Carter, this poll also disclosed that half of all Democrats now want him to seek reelection, a notable jump from 39%.

A bit obliquely, the President indicated that he is not even ready to concede that Kennedy has the Roman Catholic vote locked up if he decides to run. Baptist Carter flew to Kansas City, where he drew appreciative chuckles from some 600 priests, nuns and volunteers attending the annual convention of the National Conference of Catholic Charities. Carter joked about having been chided at a Sunday School class the day before about “spending an awful lot of time with the Catholics lately.” In his address Carter repeatedly invoked the name of Pope John Paul II, noting the time they had spent together on the Pontiffs American visit. He drew applause by announcing that he would sponsor three conferences on problems of families next summer (in Baltimore, Minneapolis and Los Angeles) and that he would create an office of families within the Department of Health and Human Services. He did not specify just what this new unit, which seems to contradict his promise to cut back on the federal bureaucracy, would do.

On the same day Carter openly courted the endorsement of Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne, and the Democratic organization she hopes to dominate, at a fund-raising spectacular for her in the huge McCormick Place convention center. Some 11,000 people paid $100 each to sit at dinner tables that covered two entire floors —the largest dinner ever held by Democrats in Chicago. The Mayor, the President and 124 celebrities filled a 150-ft.-long dais built as a replica of the Delta Queen, the paddlewheel steamer Carter took down the Mississippi last summer.

The mock boat was surrounded by a make-believe moat, and “Southern belles” in hoop skirts promenaded on decks above the head table. Mayor Byrne welcomed the President by sounding a blast on a steam whistle. Observed the impressed Carter: “This is an absolutely unbelievable sight.”

The President tried to score points by noting some of the goodies he claimed his Administration had brought to Chicago: 250,000 more jobs, $127 million in grants, and enough urban development funds to stimulate $300 million in investment. He also promised to move an Air National Guard base at O’Hare International Airport so that that busy facility could be expanded.

Carter came very close to winning Lady Jane’s heart. First, she offered some scolding words for the Kennedy supporters: “I admonish those who would divide the Democratic Party in the national elections that they might reap the wild political wind. I do not think we can afford a national intraparty bloodbath at this crucial time. It will be at our peril to flout the national political tradition that an incumbent deserves a second term.” Was that an endorsement of Carter? Not quite.

“It would be premature and presumptuous of me tonight to say that I believe the Democratic Party ought to renominate our present leader for another four-year term.” But almost. “If the convention were tonight, I would vote in our party caucus without hesitancy to renominate our present leader for another four years.”

Where did that leave the phantom of Hyannis Port? Not entirely out of Mayor Byrne’s thoughts. She revealed that Kennedy had sent her a coy telegram, saying:

“Remember that I have known you and loved you and Chicago longer.” Indeed, Byrne got her start in Chicago politics as a campaign organizer for John Kennedy in 1960. Her office, in fact, is decorated with three photos of J.F.K. and one of Robert Kennedy. She does not display a picture of Jimmy Carter.

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