Harold Ickes calls Sen. Ted Kennedy’s 1980 campaign for president “a seminal moment” in his political life. After Kennedy’s passing, Ickes and a number of other strategists who worked on the effort are looking back on the senator’s primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter—a race that would help define their careers and leave an indelible imprint on their political lives.
“Many people saw this as the last of the brothers carrying the family torch, and in many ways that’s exactly what it was,” says Ickes. In the fall of 1979 Ickes was dispatched by Steve Smith, Kennedy’s campaign chairman, to assist the campaign’s efforts in the Florida straw poll; Ickes later helped manage the convention floor for Kennedy in New York City.
“It was a brutal political fistfight,” remembers Ickes who battled Bob Torricelli on the convention floor—at the time the future representative and senator from New Jersey was running the floor effort for President Carter.
"I remember it as the most intense experience of my life," says Torricelli. "We were all young and Harold was reporting directly to Sen. Kennedy and I was reporting directly to President Carter. So the stakes could not have been higher. Harold and I actually went from not speaking to one another after that campaign to lifelong friends."
Torricelli says even after he made it into the U.S. Senate, his role in 1980 exerted an impact on his relationship with Kennedy.
"As someone who is intensly competitive, I think he never forgot it," Torricelli says. "We worked together and became friends, but I think the fact that I had managed the rules fight was always present."
The wrangling on the convention floor that year helped burnish Ickes’ reputation as a “win-at-all-costs” operative. His candidate trailed President Carter by 700 delegates heading into the convention, but Ickes worked every angle he could to create roadblocks for Carter on the convention floor.
“Any campaign, especially one for the presidency, becomes very personal because you are so much on the line every minute of every day, and of course the senator had the additional burden of carrying the family legacy,” says Ickes. “It was a bitter loss for everyone, but it is a great testament to him that he put that behind him and went on to forge a stellar career in the Senate.”
Another Kennedy man on the convention floor in 1980 was 24-year-old Joe Trippi who was floor manager for the Texas and Utah delegations.
“Ted Kennedy didn’t know it, but by running for president he had changed my life,” Trippi wrote in 2004. “I learned politics Kennedy-style, worked my heart out as a $15-a-day organizer in state after state. I learned that the cause and what you believe in are everything—and that night in Madison Square Garden so many years ago—Ted Kennedy spoke to the nation and all I heard was ‘Don’t give up.’”
The loss was a personal one for Ickes and Trippi, as it was for many on Kennedy’s staff.
“There was a lot of pent up emotion after it was all over,” says Bill Carrick, Kennedy’s political director at the time. “Among Carter’s people there was almost a sense of denial that a campaign had even occurred. Sen. Kennedy was out there campaigning every day, but the president never left the White House.”
Elizabeth Drew, writing in The New Yorker in February 1980, saw the unique challenge for Kennedy’s campaign. “Other men could run for the presidency and lose and go their ways, with whatever degree of disappointment or bitterness,” Drew wrote. “But Edward Kennedy, the last of the Kennedy brothers, was, in making this challenge, laying on the line a legend, and a legacy for which he felt responsible.”
Kennedy’s national field director in 1980 was Carl Wagner, a longtime Democratic consultant and Kennedy friend. “Out of that campaign came essentially a generation of incredibly talented people,” says Wagner. “That was one of the great contributions of the campaign in my judgment.”
Along with operatives like Ickes, Trippi and Bob Shrum, out of the Kennedy campaign also emerged Jack Corrigan, now a veteran Democratic organizer and strategist who played a key role for John Kerry in 2004; John Sasso who steered Michael Dukakis to the Democratic presidential nomination; and Tony Podesta, now one of D.C.’s top lobbyists, among others.
“It was a campaign that began with a great deal of self-confidence and was quickly dashed by the voters in Iowa, Illinois and New Hampshire,” says Podesta, who now heads the Podesta Group and ran the scheduling and advance operation for Kennedy’s 1980 campaign.
“I’ve been hearing from all the advance people all day today,” he says. “For many of them it was their first campaign and a chance to work with him that I’m sure they’ll never forget.”
The campaign’s defining moments, according to Bill Carrick, were two speeches—the first was in February at Georgetown University in which Kennedy redefined his campaign and “hit his stride as a campaigner.” The other was his concession speech in New York—a speech which also helped define a man who has worked on seven White House races.
Bob Shrum, who authored Kennedy’s concession speech at the 1980 convention, was one of the operatives who fought for his candidate to stick it out till the end. Writes Shrum in Time magazine, “There is in that 1980 speech an insight into the long arc of his achievement: his belief in something bigger than himself, his persistence despite the odds, his capacity to express the conscience of his party and his country’s best possibilities.”
Podesta calls it the greatest speech he has ever seen at a Democratic convention. “I was lucky enough to be on the podium with him,” he remembers. “It was the most electric moment of my life before or since. It felt like fireworks after every word.”
For Podesta, Ickes, Carrick and no doubt many others who devoted more than a year of their lives to Kennedy’s presidential campaign, the loss lingered long after.
“He called me in the fall of 1980 and told me it was important to show that the party was united,” recalls Carrick. “And he told me he was going to give my name to the Carter folks as someone who would be willing to work for the president against Reagan, and would that be OK? I was looking forward to it like a root canal, but I said, ‘Of course senator, that would be just fine.’”
For Carrick, it was an early example of what would make Kennedy a Senate institution and a man who could bridge partisan divides among his fellow senators.
“He was always a master of the big things, but he’s the best ever at the small things,” says Carrick. “Just the respect and courtesy he showed to his colleagues—those are the things that made him the great senator he was.”