Teddy's Moment of Truth

In 1984, Ted Kennedy gave up his brothers’ dream of becoming president for the last time and re-focused on being a senator. Inside the crucial turning point of a great career. 

08.28.09 8:58 PM ET

The early favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination and 10 members of his family gathered on a gray Cape Cod day on the Friday after Thanksgiving in 1982. Ted Kennedy’s chief aide explained how polls and television advertisements and a battle-hardened campaign staff could win not only the nomination but, with difficulty, the presidency in 1984. In corduroys, jeans, and sweaters, they faced him in a semicircle of old chairs and couches in the living room of President Kennedy’s old cottage at Hyannis Port.

For more than a year, Kennedy had been torn between the expectations of his political followers and the reluctance of his family.

And while he was insistently coy when asked if he would run, most reporters and most politicians put that down as tactical teasing, not uncertainty. But it wasn’t.

The senator ended the meeting and walked out onto the porch in Hyannis Port. Outside he said simply, “That’s it.”

The reason he assembled his family, chartering a plane to fly Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Larry Horowitz up from Washington to join those who had been there for the holiday dinner the day before, was the aftermath of the 1980 run against Jimmy Carter. Not the impact on himself. If anything, the chance to show he could run a better race than the one that found its voice only after it had lost any chance to win was an argument for running. But he came to understand how the race affected his family only after it was finished and they told him about it. For his children, his nieces and nephews, the 1980 campaign had been not only frightening because of the assassination threats against him, but oppressive because they were not spared the hatred he stirred.

Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography. By Adam Clymer. 752 pages. HarperColins. $16.99.

Arranging the meeting as he did was not the calculation of a politician driven to seek the presidency, a Richard Nixon or a Bill Clinton. Since his failed 1980 race, Kennedy had reestablished himself as a power in the Senate. He had feared losing that status after his presidential defeat in 1980 and the Republican capture of the Senate. But even without the power of a chairmanship, he still held pseudo-hearings called forums which drew television cameras. With Mark Hatfield, the Oregon Republican, he led a campaign for a mutual nuclear freeze with the Soviet Union. Despite Republican control of the Senate, he was now its unquestioned leader on civil-rights legislation, maneuvering the 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act into law despite Reagan administration opposition. He did it as he had passed laws for nearly two decades, by finding Republicans to work with and sharing the credit, or even letting them have it all. So when he considered whether to run, he did not have to depend on a presidential candidacy to define himself. He believed he could be a great senator.

He was not likely to be surprised by what he heard that morning. Three weeks before, he had gone sailing with his children, and after that meeting he told Bob Shrum, his press secretary and speechwriter, to delete a hint about running for president from his Election Night victory statement.

As the meeting went on, Steve Smith and the senator’s sisters, Jean Smith and Patricia Lawford, pointed to both pros and cons. The young people were generally critical and told again about the hateful heckling they had encountered in 1980, how they had been shaken by encounters like one Kara had had with a Catholic priest who introduced her at a candidates’ forum by saying her father was unfit to be president. Kathleen said she doubted that the race could really be won and wondered whether the strain would be worth it for just a gallant defeat.

After more than two hours, his nephew Joe told him, “Teddy, what it all boils down to is it’s a personal decision. I feel for you. You have to make it.” The senator ended the meeting and walked out onto the porch with Horowitz. Outside he said simply, “That’s it.”

Kennedy spent the rest of the weekend making sure, drawing out his own children. He was most concerned about Patrick, whose severe asthma flared up with stress, and whom he had called every night he was out campaigning in 1982, reassuring him he was all right. The senator’s divorce from Joan Kennedy was an added strain on Patrick, who had moved to school in Boston to be near her. The next night, the senator and Patrick walked in together to the basement movie theater in the main house in the compound. They sat for a while, with Patrick’s head on his father’s shoulder, and then wandered off together before the movie was over. Everything was all right, surmised one family friend; Kennedy would not run.

On Monday, Kennedy told his staff that his children did not want him to run. He said his decision was not quite final because he still wanted to talk to his sister Eunice, the family’s strongest advocate of another campaign. But when the meeting ended, Shrum started writing a withdrawal statement. The next day, when Kennedy told his aides that the decision was now final and a statement was needed, Shrum handed it to him.

Excerpted from Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography by Adam Clymer © 1999. With permission from the publisher, HarperCollins.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Adam Clymer is a former chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times and author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography.